Classification of Vedas

he Vedas are four: The Rig-Veda, the Sama Veda, the Yajur Veda and the Atharva Veda, the Rig Veda being the main. The four Vedas are collectively known as “Chaturveda,” of which the first three Vedas viz., Rig Veda, Sama Veda and Yajur Veda agree in form, language and content. 

The Rig Veda: The Book of Mantras

The Rig Veda is a collection of inspired songs or hymns and is a main source of information on the Rig Vedic civilization. It is the oldest composition in any Indo-European language and contains the earliest form of all Sanskrit mantras that date back to 1500 B.C. – 1000 B.C. Some scholars date the Rig Veda as early as 12000 BC – 4000 B.C. The Rig-Vedic ‘samhita’ or collection of mantras consists of 1,017 hymns or ‘suktas’, covering about 10,600 stanzas, divided into eight ‘astakas’ each having eight ‘adhayayas’ or chapters, which are sub-divided into various groups. The hymns are the work of many authors or seers called ‘rishis’. There are seven primary seers identified: Atri, Kanwa,Vashistha, Vishwamitra, Jamadagni, Gotama and Bharadwaja. The rig Veda accounts in detail the social, religious, political and economic background of the Rig-Vedic civilization. The older references uniformly indicate the hotṛ as the presiding priest, with perhaps only the adhvaryu as his assistant in the earliest times.

  • The hotṛ was the reciter of invocations and litanies. These could consist of single verses (ṛca), strophes (triples called tṛca or pairs called pragātha), or entire hymns (sukta), drawn from the ṛigveda. As each phase of the ritual required an invocation, the hotṛ had a leading or presiding role.
  • The adhvaryu was in charge of the physical details of the sacrifice (in particular the adhvara, a term for the Somayajna). According to Monier-Williams, the adhvaryu “had to measure the ground, to build the altar, to prepare the sacrificial vessels, to fetch wood and water, to light the fire, to bring the animal and immolate it,” among other duties. Each action was accompanied by supplicative or benedictive formulas (yajus), drawn from the yajurveda. Over the ṛigveda were incorporated, either intact or adapted, into the texts of the yajurveda.
  • The udgātṛ was a chanter of hymns set to melodies (sāman) drawn from the sāmaveda. This was a specialized role in the major soma sacrifices: a characteristic function of the udgātṛ was to sing hymns in praise of the invigorating properties of soma pavamāna, the freshly pressed juice of the soma plant.
  • The brahman was superintendent of the entire performance, and responsible for correcting mistakes by means of supplementary invocations.

The action which Yajur veda predicates and the musical recitation which Sama veda dictates, emerge from the basic Riks in Rig Veda.

The Saama Veda: The Book of Song

The Saama Veda is purely a liturgical collection of melodies (‘sāman’). The hymns in the Saama Veda, used as musical notes, were almost completely drawn from the Rig Veda and have no distinctive lessons of their own. Hence, its text is a reduced version of the Rig Veda. As Vedic Scholar David Frawley puts it, if the Rig Veda is the word, Saama Veda is the song or the meaning, if Rig Veda is the knowledge, Saama Veda is its realization, if Rig Veda is the wife, the Saama Veda is her husband. Saama Gaana can be said to be the basis and source of the seven swaraas or notes fundamental to Indian music systems. Saama Gaana or singing of hymns as per rules of Saama Veda, propitiates all Devatas. In Yagnaas, in addition to offering libations, there is a priest called “Udgaata” who chants Saama Veda in order to ensure the grace of the Gods.

The Yajur Veda: The Book of Ritual

 The word ‘Yajus‘ from ‘Yaj‘ means worship, the word Yajna (sacrificial worship) also derived from it. It gives a practical shape in the form of Yajna. It describes in prose the procedural details of different Yajnas. The main branches are Sukhla (white) known to be learnt from the Sun God, Surya, and the Krishna Yajur Veda (black) The glory of Yajur Veda lies in its good presentation of vedic karma or rituals. Yajnas like Darsa Poornamasa, Somayaga, Vaajapeya ( actually it means one who has conducted this Yajna), Rajasooya, Aswamedha and many others in all their procedural detail by the Thaitreeya Samhita in Krishna Yajur Veda.  Yajur is of special significance to those who understand and believe in the “non-dualism” school of philosophy, that declares that there is but One  Reality, that the individual self and the Brahman are one. ( Jeevatman and the Paramatman reside in you as same ). Any philosophical doctrine should contain a Sootra or aphorism, to enunciate the doctrine in a condensed and pithy form. Bhaashya is a detailed commentary and Vaartika, a further elaborate elucidation of the Bhaashya. The Yajur Veda is also a liturgical collection and was made to meet the demands of a ceremonial religion. The Yajur Veda practically served as a guidebook for the priests who execute sacrificial acts muttering simultaneously the prose prayers and the sacrificial formulae (‘yajus’). There are no less than six complete recessions of Yajur Veda – Madyandina, Kanva, Taittiriya, Kathaka, Maitrayani and Kapishtala. 

The Atharva Veda: Book of Knowledge and application

The last of the Vedas, this 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 also simpler in language. The Atharva mantras are in prose as well as in verse. In Atharva Veda are mantras which pertain to Devataas not mentioned in the other Vedas. The Atharva Veda consists of spells and charms prevalent at its time, and portrays a clearer picture of the Vedic society.  The pride of this Veda is that Brahma, who supervises the conduct of Yagna, is representative of Atharva Veda.

Gayathri, which is regarded as the greatest of all mantras, is said to be the essence of the three Vedas, the Rig, Yajur and Saama. Atharva Veda has a separate mantra (Turiya Gayathri). Therefore before undertaking a study of Atharva Vea, a separate initiation ceremony has to be performed and Brahmopadesa obtained before the study of this Veda.

Structure of the Vedas

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 intend to serve as objects of meditation for ascetics who live in forests and deal with mysticism and symbolism.

Upanishads contain the essence of Samhitha, Brahmana and Aaranyaka. Ten Upanishads viz. Isa upanishad, Kena upanishad Katopanishad, Mundaka upanishad, Maandukya upanishad, Taitriya upanishad, Aithareya upanishad, Chaandogya upanishad and Brahadhaaranyaka upanishad are the foremost important Upanishads in the Vedas.

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 texts. 

The four Vedas form the core of the hindu/vedic religion.  They are the supreme authority – Pramaana.  The Vedas form the basic structure from  which have been derived the 6 Vedangaas (viz. Siksha – euphony and pronunciation, Vyakarna – grammar, Chandas – metre, Niruktha – etimology, Jyotisha – astronomy & Kalpa or procedure. Meemamsa – interpretation of Vedic texts, Nyaaya – logic, Purana or mythology, and Dharma Saastras which contains the codes of conduct) are the 4 Upaangas. The four upavedas are viz.  Ayurveda or the science of life and medicine,  Arthasaastra the science of wealth or economics,  Dhanur Veda  the science relating to weaponry, missiles and warfare and  Gaandharva Veda or treatises on fine arts like music, dance,  drama, etc) in order to supplement  the understanding of the Vedas.  The Vedas are meant to be studied with the other ten of its constituents.

A distinguishing feature of the Vedas is that no Veda says “this is the only way”, “this is the only God”. All of them say that any good path followed with faith and loyalty and any Devatha worshipped in whatever way, will lead one to the true goal. Further, there is no other book of religion in this world which advocates the pursuit of diverse paths. Every religion says that its doctrine alone will lead to Heaven. The Vedas alone have such a breadth of vision as to say that the same truth can be realised in many ways by those pursuing diverse routes. That is the greatness of the Vedas.

As the Vedas give us the Dharma, the primary goal of the Vedas is to make us Self-realize (note: neither to know nor to understand, but  realize) theBrahman or the Ultimate Truth. But these scriptures are supported by a set of texts ‘wordly sciences’. To the 14 Vidyaasthanas  (viz Rig, Yajur, Saama,and Atharva Vedas and the vedaangaas: Siksha, which is euphony and pronunciation, Vyakarna which is grammer, Chandas – metre, Niruktha – etimology, Jjyotisha – astronomy, Kalpa or procedure, Meemamsa – interpretation of Vedic texts, Nyaaya – logic, Purana or mythology, and Dharma Shaastras which contains the codes of conduct) may be added 4 more,  called Upaangas or appendices to Vedaangas.

They are: 

  1. Ayurveda or the science of life and medicine.  
  2. Arthasaastra the science of wealth or economics.
  3. Dhanur Veda the science relating to weaponry, missiles and warfare
  4. Gaandharva Veda or treatises on fine arts like music, dance, drama etc.

The Vedas were given in text/script form a few centuries back only. Till then it was passed on /taught by word of mouth only. i.e. from Guru to Sishya in the Gurukula system of education. These sacred texts and its messages continue to be available to us in print but we do not follow them in letter and spirit. The basic structure of the society has been eaten away by the virus of innumerable caste divisions caused by ignorance, hypocrisy, thoughtlessness, selfishness, greed etc. thus spoiling the basics of sanatana dharma. following the vedic path only can restore its glory.