The word Veda is derived from the root ‘Vid’, which means knowledge. Vedic Literature is called Sruti as they are considered to be secret knowledge or divine revelation. Though the hymns of Sruti are attributed to several Rishis (Sages), tradition maintains that these hymns were merely revealed to the sages and not composed by them. Hence, the Vedas are called the apurushya (not made by Man) and Nitya (Existing in eternity), while the sages are known as Mantradrashta meaning one who saw or received the mantra by right directly from supreme creator.
Composition: The Vedic literature consists of two parts.
- Brahmanas: These are further divided in three parts
o Brahamanas pure and simple
Samhitas : These are collection of hymns sung in the praise of various gods. They are most essential part of Vedic literature. They are four in numbers: Rig Veda Samhita, Sama Veda Samhita, Yajur Veda Samhita & Atharva Veda Samhita.
Rig Veda: This is the Veda of praise. It consists of 1017 hymns (Suktas) supplemented by 11 others called Valakhilyas. It is divided in 10 books or Mandala. The oldest hymns are contained in Mandala II to VII and the latest in Madala I & X. Madala II to VII is composed by family of sages viz Gritsamada, Viswamitra, Vamadeva, Atri, Bharadhwaja & Vashista. Rig Veda’s hymns represent compositions of different periods by priestly poets of various families. It is purely a religious work, and most of the hymns are all invocations of God. In mandala III we find famous Gaytri mantra addressed to solar deity Savitri.
Sama Veda: Sama is derived from 'Saman' which means a song or melody. It consists of 1810 (or 1549 if one emits reputation) stanzaz. Except 75 stanzas, rest are taken from eight and ninth mandalas of Rig Veda and arranged according to the order in which they were chanted by Udgatri priests at soma sacrifice. It is called the book of chants and the origin of Indian music is traced to it.
Yajur Veda:(Vedas of Yajur or Formulae) consists of various mantras (hymns) for the purpose of recitation and rules to be observed at time of sacrifice. It is primarily a guide for the use of the adhvarya priests who performed the manual part of ritual. The two royal ceremonies of Rajasuya and Vajpeya are mentioned for the first time in this Veda. In contrast to Rig and Sama Veda which are in verse entirely this one is in both prose and verse. It is divided into two parts Krishna Yajur Veda and Sukla Yajur veda. The Krishna Yajur Veda is older of the two and contains not only the hymns but also prose commentaries. The Sukla Yajur Veda contains only the hymns. The former consists of four samhitas (the kathaka, kapisthala-katha, Maitrayan and Taittiriya Samhitas) but the latter has only the Vajasaneyi samhitas.
The Atharva Veda: (Veda of Atharvan or the knowledge of magic formulas) contains charms and spells in verse to ward off evils and diseases. Believed to be the work of non Aryans, it is divided into two parts: Paippalada and Saunaka.
Brahmanas: Belonging to the second great class of the Vedas; they are treaties relating to prayer and sacrificial ceremony. Their subject matter is ritual and language is prose. In short they deal with science of sacrifice. The important Brahmanas are:
1) Aitareya: Related to Rig veda
2) Kausitaki: Related to Rig veda
3) Tandyamaha: Related to Sama Veda
4) Jaiminiya: Related to Sama Veda
5) Taittiriya: Related to Yajur Veda
6) Sathapatha: Related to Yajur Veda
7) Gopatha: Related to Atharva Veda
Tandyamaha Brahmana is one of the oldest. It includes details about Vratyastoma, a ceremony through which people of non Aryan stock could be admitted into Aryan fold. Sathpatha Brahaman is most voluminous and most important of all the Brahamanas.
Aryanyakas: These forest books deals with mysticism and symbolism of sacrifice and priestly philosophy. They contain transitional material between the mythology and the ritual of the Samhita and the Brahmanas on the one hand and the philosophy and speculations of the Upanishadas on the other.
Upanishadas: They mark the culmination of Indian thought in the Vedic period. They criticize the rituals and lay stress on the value of right belief and knowledge. They are philosophical texts dealing with topics like the Universal soul, the absolute, individual self etc.
Of the several Upanishads, only 12 are very important. They are
1) Aitareya - Related to Rig veda
2) Kausitaki - Related to Rig veda
3) Chandogya - Related to Sama veda
4) Kena - Related to Sama veda
5) Taittiriya - Related to Yajur veda
6) Katha - Related to Yajur veda
7) Svetasvatra - Related to Yajur veda
8) Brihadaranyka - Related to Yajur veda
9) Isa - Related to Yajur veda
10) Mundaka - Related to Atharva veda
11) Prasna - Related to Atharva veda
12) Mandukya - Related to Atharva veda
Acoording to Upanishads there are two kinds of knowledge: The higher and the lower. The higher knowledge helps us to know the imperishable Brahman, while the lower can be gathered from four Vedas as well as six vedangas. The Mundaka upanishadas is chiefly notable for the clear distinction between higher knowledge of supreme Brahman and lower knowledge of empirical world.
Vedanga and Sutra Literature: In contrast to 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. There are 6 vedangas
1) Siksha (phonetics)
2) Kalpa (rituals)
3) Vyakarna (Grammer)
4) Nirukta (Etymology)
5) Chandas (Metrics)
6) Joytisha (Astronomy)
The vedangas are written in form of sutras i.e. condensed in prose style for memorization. Of all the sutras only Kalpa sutra have come down to us and these are divided into three classes
1) Saruta Sutras: Deals with the ritual of great sacrifices of Agni, Soma and animals
2) Grihya Sutras: Deals with domestic ceremonies and sacrifices to be made by house holder
3) Dharma Sutras: Deals with laws, manual and custom of people in general.