Vedopanishads – Bulusu Udaya Bhaaskar’s Encyclopedia


From Bulusu Udaya Bhaaskar’s Encyclopedia

The Vedas (Sanskrit वेद véda, “knowledge“) are a large body of texts originating in ancient India. Composed in Vedic Sanskrit, the texts constitute the oldest layer of Sanskrit literature and the oldest scriptures of Hinduism.

The class of “Vedic texts” is aggregated around the four canonical Saṃhitās or Vedas proper (turīya), of which three (traya) are related to the performance of yajna (sacrifice) in historical (Iron Age) Vedic religion:

  1. The Rigveda, containing hymns to be recited by the hotṛ (Vedic priest in charge of reciting invocations and litanies);
  2. The Yajurveda, containing formulas to be recited by the adhvaryu (Vedic priest in charge of the physical details of the sacrifice);
  3. The Samaveda, containing formulas to be sung by the udgātṛ (Vedic priest in charge of chanting hymns set to melodies (sāman) drawn from the sāmaveda);
  4. The Atharvaveda, a collection of spells and incantations, apotropaic charms and speculative hymns.

According to Hindu tradition, the Vedas are apauruṣeya “not of human agency”, are supposed to have been directly revealed (possibly through what is now known as Mediumship), and thus are called śruti (“what is heard”). The four Saṃhitās are metrical (with the exception of prose commentary interspersed in the Black Yajurveda). The term saṃhitā literally means “composition, compilation”. The individual verses contained in these compilations are known as mantras. Some selected Vedic mantras are still recited at prayers, religious functions and other auspicious occasions in contemporary Hinduism.

The various Indian philosophies and sects have taken differing positions on the Vedas. Schools of Indian philosophy which cite the Vedas as their scriptural authority are classified as “orthodox” (āstika). Other traditions, notably Buddhism and Jainism, which did not regard the Vedas as authorities are referred to by traditional Hindu texts as “heterodox” or “non-orthodox” (nāstika) schools. In addition to Buddhism and Jainism, Sikhism AGGS- and Brahmoism many non-brahmin Hindus in South India do not accept the authority of the Vedas. Certain South Indian brahmin communities such as Iyengars consider the Tamil Divya Prabandham or writing of the Alvar saints as equivalent to the Vedas. In most Iyengar temples in South India the Divya Prabandham is recited daily along with Vedic Hymns.

The Sanskrit word véda “knowledge, wisdom” is derived from the root vid- “to know”. This is reconstructed as being derived from the Proto-Indo-European root *u̯eid-, meaning “see” or “know”.

As a noun, the word appears only in a single instance in the Rigveda, in RV 8.19.5, translated by Griffith as “ritual lore”:

yáḥ samídhā yá âhutī / yó védena dadâśa márto agnáye / yó námasā svadhvaráḥ
“The mortal who hath ministered to Agni with oblation, fuel, ritual lore, and reverence, skilled in sacrifice.”

Geldner’s translation of the same passage has Wissen, “knowledge”.

The noun is from Proto-Indo-European *u̯eidos, cognate to Greek (ϝ)εἶδος “aspect”, “form” and Lithuanian veidas “face”. Not to be confused is the homonymous 1st and 3rd person singular perfect tense véda, cognate to Greek (ϝ)οἶδα (w)oida “I know”. Root cognates are Greek ἰδέα, English wit, etc., Latin video “I see”, etc.

In English, the term Veda is often but mistakenly used to refer to the Samhitas (collection of mantras, or chants) of the four canonical Vedas (Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda).

The Sanskrit term veda as a common noun means “knowledge”, but can also be used to refer to fields of study unrelated to liturgy or ritual, e.g. in agada-veda “medical science”, sasya-veda “science of agriculture” or sarpa-veda “science of snakes” (already found in the early Upanishads); durveda means “with evil knowledge, ignorant”.

English Discourse

The Vedas first entered English discourse through the translations of Müller (1823–1900) and he opines (Müller & Stone, 2002: p. 44) that they have importance for English-speaking peoples because English is an Indo-European language and Vedic Sanskrit is the oldest member of that language family:

“As the language of the Veda, the Sanskrit, is the most ancient type of the English of the present day (Sanskrit and English are but varieties of one and the same language), so its thoughts and feelings contain in reality the first roots and germs of that intellectual growth which by an unbroken chain connects our own generation with the ancestors of the Aryan race–with those very people who at the rising and setting of the sun listened with trembling hearts to the songs of the Veda, that told them of bright powers above, and of a life to come after the sun of their own lives had set in the clouds of the evening. Those men were the true ancestors of our race; and the Veda is the oldest book we have in which to study the first beginnings of our language, and of all that is embodied in language. We are by nature Aryan, Indo-European, not Semitic: our spiritual kith and kin are to be found in India, Persia, Greece, Italy, Germany; not in Mesopotamia, Egypt, or Palestine. This is a fact that ought to be clearly perceived, and constantly kept in view, in order to understand the importance which the Veda has for us, after a lapse of more than three thousand years, and after ever so many changes in our language, thought, and religion.”

Chronology -Vedic period

The Vedas are among the oldest sacred texts. The Samhitas date to roughly 1500–1000 BCE, and the “circum-Vedic” texts, as well as the redaction of the Samhitas, date to c. 1000-500 BCE, resulting in a Vedic period, spanning the mid 2nd to mid 1st millennium BCE, spanning the Late Bronze Age and the Iron Age. Gavin FloodFlood- sums up mainstream estimates, according to which the Rigveda was compiled from as early as 1500 BCE over a period of several centuries. The Vedic period reaches its peak only after the composition of the mantra texts, with the establishment of the various shakhas all over Northern India which annotated the mantra samhitas with Brahmana discussions of their meaning, and reaches its end in the age of Buddha and Panini and the rise of the Mahajanapadas (archaeologically, Northern Black Polished Ware). Michael Witzel gives a time span of c. 1500 BCE to c. 500-400 BCE. Witzel makes special reference to the Near Eastern Mitanni material of the 14th c. BCE the only epigraphic record of Indo-Aryan contemporary to the Rigvedic period. He gives 150 BCE (Patañjali) as a terminus ante quem for all Vedic Sanskrit literature, and 1200 BCE (the early Iron Age) as terminus post quem for the Atharvaveda. The general accepted historical chronology of the Vedas ranks the Rig Veda as the first, followed by the Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and finally the Atharva Veda.

Transmission of texts in the Vedic period was by oral tradition alone, preserved with precision with the help of elaborate mnemonic techniques. A literary tradition set in only in post-Vedic times, after the rise of Buddhism in the Maurya period, perhaps earliest in the Kanva recension of the Yajurveda about the 1st century BCE; however oral tradition predominated until c. 1000 CE. Due to the ephemeral nature of the manuscript material (birch bark or palm leaves), surviving manuscripts rarely surpass an age of a few hundred years. The Benares Sanskrit University has a Rigveda manuscript of the mid-14th century; however, there are a number of older Veda manuscripts in Nepal belonging to the Vajasaneyi tradition that are dated from the 11th century onwards.

Categories of Vedic Texts

The term “Vedic texts” is used in two distinct meanings:

  1. Texts composed in Vedic Sanskrit during the Vedic period (Iron Age India)
  2. Any text considered as “connected to the Vedas” or a “corollary of the Vedas”.

Vedic Sanskrit Corpus

The corpus of Vedic Sanskrittexts includes:

  • The Samhita (Sanskrit saṃhitā, “collection”), are collections of metric texts (“mantras“). There are four “Vedic” Samhitas: the Rig-Veda, Sama-Veda, Yajur-Veda, and Atharva-Veda, most of which are available in several recensions (śākhā). In some contexts, the term Veda is used to refer to these Samhitas. This is the oldest layer of Vedic texts, apart from the Rigvedic hymns, which were probably essentially complete by 1200 BC, dating to ca. the 12th to 10th centuries BC. The complete corpus of Vedic mantras as collected in Bloomfield‘s Vedic Concordance (1907) consists of some 89,000 padas (metric feet), of which 72,000 occur in the four Samhitas.
  • The Brahmanas are prose texts that discuss, in technical fashion, the solemn sacrificial rituals as well as comment on their meaning and many connected themes. Each of the Brahmanas is associated with one of the Samhitas or its recensions. The Brahmanas may either form separate texts or can be partly integrated into the text of the Samhitas. They may also include the Aranyakas and Upanishads.
  • The Aranyakas , “wilderness texts” or “forest treaties”, were composed by people who meditated in the woods as recluses and are the third part of the Vedas. The texts contain discussions and interpretations of dangerous rituals (to be studied outside the settlement) and various sorts of additional materials. It is frequently read in secondary literature.
  • Some of the older Mukhya Upanishads (Bṛhadāraṇyaka, Chandogya, Kaṭha).
  • Certain Sūtra literature, i.e. the Shrautasutras and the Grhyasutras.

The Shrauta Sutras, regarded as belonging to the smriti, are late Vedic in language and content, thus forming part of the Vedic Sanskrit corpus. The composition of the Shrauta and Grhya Sutras (ca. 6th century BC) marks the end of the Vedic period , and at the same time the beginning of the flourishing of the “circum-Vedic” scholarship of Vedanga, introducing the early flowering of classical Sanskrit literature in the Mauryan and Gupta periods.

While production of Brahmanas and Aranyakas ceases with the end of the Vedic period, there is a large number of Upanishads composed after the end of the Vedic period. While most of the ten Mukhya Upanishads can be considered to date to the Vedic or Mahajanapada period, most of the 108 Upanishads of the full Muktika canon date to the Common Era.

The Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and Upanishads often interpret the polytheistic and ritualistic Samhitas in philosophical and metaphorical ways to explore abstract concepts such as the Absolute (Brahman), and the soul or the self (Atman), introducing Vedanta philosophy, one of the major trends of later Hinduism.

The Vedic Sanskrit corpus is the scope of A Vedic Word Concordance (Vaidika-Padānukrama-Koṣa) prepared from 1930 under Vishva Bandhu, and published in five volumes in 1935-1965. Its scope extends to about 400 texts, including the entire Vedic Sanskrit corpus besides some “sub-Vedic” texts.

Volume I: Samhitas
Volume II: Brahmanas and Aranyakas
Volume III: Upanishads
Volume IV: Vedangas

A revised edition, extending to about 1800 pages, was published in 1973-1976.

Shruti Literature

The texts considered “Vedic” in the sense of “corollaries of the Vedas” is less clearly defined, and may include numerous post-Vedic texts such as Upanishads or Sutra literature. These texts are by many Hindu sects considered to be shruti (Sanskrit: śruti; “the heard”), divinely revealed like the Vedas themselves. Texts not considered to be shruti are known as smriti (Sanskrit: smṛti; “the remembered”), of human origin. This indigenous system of categorization was adopted by Max Müller and, while it is subject to some debate, it is still widely used. As Axel Michaels explains:

These classifications are often not tenable for linguistic and formal reasons: There is not only one collection at any one time, but rather several handed down in separate Vedic schools; Upanişads … are sometimes not to be distinguished from Āraṇyakas…; Brāhmaṇas contain older strata of language attributed to the Saṃhitās; there are various dialects and locally prominent traditions of the Vedic schools. Nevertheless, it is advisable to stick to the division adopted by Max Müller because it follows the Indian tradition, conveys the historical sequence fairly accurately, and underlies the current editions, translations, and monographs on Vedic literature.

The Upanishads are largely philosophical works in dialog form. They discuss questions of nature philosophy and the fate of the soul, and contain some mystic and spiritual interpretations of the Vedas. For long, they have been regarded as their putative end and essence, and are thus known as Vedānta (“the end of the Vedas”). Taken together, they are the basis of the Vedanta school.

Vedic Schools or Recensions- Shakha

Study of the extensive body of Vedic texts has been organized into a number of different schools or branches (Sanskrit śākhā, literally “branch” or “limb”) each of which specialized in learning certain texts. Multiple recensions are known for each of the Vedas, and each Vedic text may have a number of schools associated with it. Elaborate methods for preserving the text were based on memorizing by heart instead of writing. Specific techniques for parsing and reciting the texts were used to assist in the memorization process.

Prodigous energy was expended by ancient Indian culture in ensuring that these texts were transmitted from generation to generation with inordinate fidelity. For example, memorization of the sacred Vedas included up to eleven forms of recitation of the same text. The texts were subsequently “proof-read” by comparing the different recited versions. Forms of recitation included the jaṭā-pāṭha (literally “mesh recitation”) in which every two adjacent words in the text were first recited in their original order, then repeated in the reverse order, and finally repeated again in the original order.

That these methods have been effective, is testified to by the preservation of the most ancient Indian religious text, the Ṛigveda, as a redacted into single text during the Brahmana period, without any variant readings.

The canonical division of the Vedas is fourfold (turīya) viz.,

  1. Rigveda (RV)
  2. Yajurveda (YV, with the main division TS vs. VS)
  3. Sama-Veda (SV)
  4. Atharva-Veda (AV)

Of these, the first three were the principal original division, also called “trayī vidyā“, that is, “the triple sacred science” of reciting hymns (RV), performing sacrifices (YV), and chanting (SV). This triplicity is so introduced in the Brahmanas (ShB, ABr and others), but the Rigveda is the older work of the three from which the other two borrow, next to their own independent Yajus, sorcery and speculative mantras.

Thus, the Mantras are properly of three forms: 1. Ric, which are verses of praise in metre, and intended for loud recitation; 2. Yajus, which are in prose, and intended for recitation in lower voice at sacrifices; 3. Sāman, which are in metre, and intended for singing at the Soma ceremonies.

The Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda are independent collections of mantras and hymns intended as manuals for the Adhvaryu, Udgatr and Brahman priests respectively.

The Atharvaveda is the fourth Veda. Its status has occasionally been ambiguous, probably due to its use in sorcery and healing. However, it contains very old materials in early Vedic language. Manusmrti, which often speaks of the three Vedas, calling them trayam-brahma-sanātanam, “the triple eternal Veda”. The Atharvaveda like the Rigveda, is a collection of original incantations, and other materials borrowing relatively little from the Rigveda. It has no direct relation to the solemn Śrauta sacrifices, except for the fact that the mostly silent Brahmán priest observes the procedures and uses Atharvaveda mantras to ‘heal’ it when mistakes have been made. Its recitation also produces long life, cures diseases, or effects the ruin of enemies.

Each of the four Vedas consists of the metrical Mantra or Samhita and the prose Brahmana part, giving discussions and directions for the detail of the ceremonies at which the Mantras were to be used and explanations of the legends connected with the Mantras and rituals. Both these portions are termed shruti (which tradition says to have been heard but not composed or written down by men). Each of the four Vedas seems to have passed to numerous Shakhas or schools, giving rise to various recensions of the text. They each have an Index or Anukramani, the principal work of this kind being the general Index or Sarvānukramaṇī.


The Rigveda Samhita is the oldest extant Indic text. It is a collection of 1,028 Vedic Sanskrit hymns and 10,600 verses in all, organized into ten books (Sanskrit: mandalas). The hymns are dedicated to Rigvedic deities.

The books were composed by poets from different priestly groups over a period of several centuries, commonly dated to the period of roughly the second half of the 2nd millennium BCE (the early Vedic period) in the Punjab (Sapta Sindhu) region of the Indian subcontinent.

There are strong linguistic and cultural similarities between the Rigveda and the early Iranian Avesta, deriving from the Proto-Indo-Iranian times, often associated with the Andronovo culture; the earliest horse-drawn chariots were found at Andronovo sites in the Sintashta-Petrovka cultural area near the Ural Mountains and date to ca. 2000 BCE.


The Yajurveda Samhita consists of archaic prose mantras and also in part of verses borrowed and adapted from the Rigveda. Its purpose was practical, in that each mantra must accompany an action in sacrifice but, unlike the Samaveda, it was compiled to apply to all sacrificial rites, not merely the Somayajna. There are two major groups of recensions of this Veda, known as the “Black” (Krishna) and “White” (Shukla) Yajurveda (Krishna and Shukla Yajurveda respectively). While White Yajurveda separates the Samhita from its Brahmana (the Shatapatha Brahmana), the e Black Yajurveda intersperses the Samhita with Brahmana commentary. Of the Black Yajurveda four major recensions survive (Maitrayani, Katha, Kapisthala-Katha, Taittiriya).


The Samaveda Samhita (from sāman, the term for a melody applied to metrical hymn or song of praise) consists of 1549 stanzas, taken almost entirely (except for 78 stanzas) from the Rigveda. Like the Rigvedic stanzas in the Yajurveda, the Samans have been changed and adapted for use in singing. Some of the Rigvedic verses are repeated more than once. Including repetitions, there are a total of 1875 verses numbered in the Samaveda recension translated by Griffith. Two major recensions remain today, the Kauthuma/Ranayaniya and the Jaiminiya. Its purpose was liturgical, as the repertoire of the udgātṛ or “singer” priests who took part in the sacrifice.


The Artharvaveda Samhita is the text ‘belonging to the Atharvan and Angirasa poets. It has 760 hymns, and about 160 of the hymns are in common with the Rigveda. Most of the verses are metrical, but some sections are in prose. It was compiled around 900 BCE, although some of its material may go back to the time of the Rigveda, and some parts of the Atharva-Veda are older than the Rig-Veda though not in linguistic form.

The Atharvanaveda is preserved in two recensions, the Paippalāda and Śaunaka. According to Apte it had nine schools (shakhas). The Paippalada text, which exists in a Kashmir and an Orissa version, is longer than the Saunaka one; it is only partially printed in its two versions and remains largely untranslated.

Unlike the other three Vedas, the Atharvanaveda has less connection with sacrifice. Its first part consists chiefly of spells and incantations, concerned with protection against demons and disaster, spells for the healing of diseases, for long life and for various desires or aims in life.

The second part of the text contains speculative and philosophical hymns.

The Atharvaveda is a comparatively late extension of the “Three Vedas” connected to priestly sacrifice to a canon of “Four Vedas”. This may be connected to an extension of the sacrificial rite from involving three types of priest to the inclusion of the Brahman overseeing the ritual.


The mystical notions surrounding the concept of the one “Veda” that would flower in Vedantic philosophy have their roots already in Brahmana literature, for example in the Shatapatha Brahmana. The Vedas are identified with Brahman, the universal principle (ŚBM, Vāc “speech” is called the “mother of the Vedas” (ŚBM, The knowledge of the Vedas is endless, compared to them, human knowledge is like mere handfuls of dirt (TB The universe itself was originally encapsulated in the three Vedas (ŚBM has Prajapati reflecting that “truly, all beings are in the triple Veda”).

VedantaUpanishads, and Aranyakas

While contemporary traditions continued to maintain Vedic ritualism (Śrauta, Mimamsa), Vedanta renounced all ritualism and radically re-interpreted the notion of “Veda” in purely philosophical terms. The association of the three Vedas with the bhūr bhuvaḥ svaḥ mantra is found in the Aitareya Aranyaka: “Bhūḥ is the Rigveda, bhuvaḥ is the Yajurveda, svaḥ is the Samaveda” (1.3.2). The Upanishads reduce the “essence of the Vedas” further, to the syllable Aum (). Thus, the Katha Upanishad has:

“The goal, which all Vedas declare, which all austerities aim at, and which humans desire when they live a life of continence, I will tell you briefly it is Aum” (1.2.15)

In Post-Vedic Literature – Vedanga

Six technical subjects related to the Vedas are traditionally known as vedāṅga “limbs of the Veda”. V. S. Apte defines this group of works as:

“N. of a certain class of works regarded as auxiliary to the Vedas and designed to aid in the correct pronunciation and interpretation of the text and the right employment of the Mantras in ceremonials.”

These subjects are treated in Sūtra literature dating from the end of the Vedic period to Mauryan times, seeing the transition from late Vedic Sanskrit to Classical Sanskrit.

The six subjects of Vedanga are:


Pariśiṣṭa “supplement, appendix” is the term applied to various ancillary works of Vedic literature, dealing mainly with details of ritual and elaborations of the texts logically and chronologically prior to them: the Samhitas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Sutras. Naturally classified with the Veda to which each pertains, Parisista works exist for each of the four Vedas. However, only the literature associated with the Atharvaveda is extensive.

  • The Āśvalāyana Gṛhya Pariśiṣṭa is a very late text associated with the Rigveda canon.
  • The Gobhila Gṛhya Pariśiṣṭa is a short metrical text of two chapters, with 113 and 95 verses respectively.
  • The Kātiya Pariśiṣṭas, ascribed to Kātyāyana, consist of 18 works enumerated self-referentially in the fifth of the series (the Caraṇavyūha)
  • The Kṛṣṇa Yajurveda has 3 parisistas The Āpastamba Hautra Pariśiṣṭa, which is also found as the second praśna of the Satyasāḍha Śrauta Sūtra‘, the Vārāha Śrauta Sūtra Pariśiṣṭa and the Kātyāyana Śrauta Sūtra Pariśiṣṭa.
  • For the Atharvaveda, there are 79 works, collected as 72 distinctly named parisistas.


A traditional view given in the Vishnu Purana (likely dating to the Gupta period) attributes the current arrangement of four Vedas to the great sage Srila Vedavyasa. Puranic tradition also postulates a single original Veda that, in varying accounts, was divided into three or four parts. According to the Vishnu Purana (3.2.18, 3.3.4 etc.) the original Veda was divided into four parts, and further fragmented into numerous shakhas, by Lord Vishnu in the form of Vyasa, in the Dvapara Yuga; the Vayu Purana (section 60) recounts a similar division by Vyasa, at the urging of Brahma. The Bhagavata Purana (12.6.37) traces the origin of the primeval Veda to the syllable aum, and says that it was divided into four at the start of Dvapara Yuga, because men had declined in age, virtue and understanding. In a differing account Bhagavata Purana (9.14.43) attributes the division of the primeval veda (aum) into three parts to the monarch Pururavas at the beginning of Treta Yuga. The Mahabharata (santiparva 13,088) also mentions the division of the Veda into three in Treta Yuga.


The term upaveda (“applied knowledge”) is used in traditional literature to designate the subjects of certain technical works. Lists of what subjects are included in this class differ among sources. The Charanavyuha mentions four Upavedas:

But Sushruta and Bhavaprakasha mention Ayurveda as an upaveda of the Atharvaveda. Sthapatyaveda (architecture), Shilpa Shastras (arts and crafts) are mentioned as fourth upaveda according to later sources.

“Fifth” and other Vedas

Some post-Vedic texts, including the Mahabharata, the Natyasastra and certain Puranas, refer to themselves as the “fifth Veda“. The earliest reference to such a “fifth Veda” is found in the Chandogya Upanishad. “Dravida Veda” is a term for canonical Tamil Bhakti texts

Other texts such as the Bhagavad Gita or the Vedanta Sutras are considered shruti or “Vedic” by some Hindu denominations but not universally within Hinduism. The Bhakti movement, and Gaudiya Vaishnavism in particular extended the term veda to include the Sanskrit Epics and Vaishnavite devotional texts such as the Pancaratra

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