The Vedas: Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda

The Vedas are ancient sacred texts of Hinduism. The word Veda means knowledge. The root is vid, meaning ‘to know’. The Vedas are thus sacred texts that provide knowledge. There are four Vedas: Rig Veda, the Yajur Veda, the Sama Veda, and the Atharva Veda.

The Four Vedas

Many years ago, the Vedas were referred to as trayi, meaning three. It is assumed that there were only 3 Vedas (Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, and Sama Veda) in circulation, and they showed three paths to salvation;

  1. jana (knowledge): Rig Veda
  2. bhakti (devotion): Sama Veda
  3. karma (action): Yajur Veda

Each of the Vedas has two branches or appendices called, a Samhita (mantra section) and the Brahmanas (prose section). The Samhita part consists of mantras or chants. These were hymns that were used in sacrifices. But these mantras are challenging to interpret without commentaries. Brahmanas explain the hymns and indicate how these are to be used in sacrifices. The Brahmanas also have detailed descriptions of sacrifices and how to conduct them. The Samhitas and the Brahmanas relate to rituals and ceremonies.

In addition, Vedic literature also includes Jnana Kanda, which deals with supreme knowledge. Included in jnana kanda are the aranyakas and the Upanishads (Vedanta). These are identified with various Vedas.

We can therefore have a narrow definition of a Veda and a broad one. A narrow definition of Veda has Samhita alone, while the broad definition of Veda includes Samhita along with Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and Upanishads.

When were the Vedas composed, and who wrote them?

Author of Vedas

Strictly speaking, we do not know who the author of Vedas is. The Vedas were revealed; they were shrutis. They were not written down or composed. They were communicated by the supreme godhead or the divine essence (brahman) to the ancient seers (rishis). These rishis did not write the Vedas; they merely obtained this divine knowledge through their extraordinary powers. In this sense, the Vedas are apourusheya (i.e., their authorship cannot be ascribed to humans).

Krishna Dvaipayana Vedavyasa is credited for the recapitulation and division of the original unified Vedas into the four segments of the Rig Veda, the Yajur Veda, the Sama Veda, and the Atharva Veda. Krishna Dvaipayana Vedavyasa is also credited with the composition of the great epic, the Mahabharata.

When was Vedas Composed? 

Just as it is impossible to determine who composed the Vedas, it is also impossible to decide when they were written. Scholars have suggested widely different dates, and most scholars agree that the Vedas were compiled sometime between 6000 BC and 1000 BC.

Rig Veda 

The Rig Veda derives its name from the word rik, which means a mantra. The Rig Veda Samhita consists of mantras to be uttered by the Hotri (officiating priests or acolytes). Hotri invokes the gods by reciting the mantras, preparing the sacrificial round and the altar, and pouring out libations for any yajna (sacrifice).

There are 10,589 verses in the Rig Veda Samhita. These are divided into ten mandalas or books. Each mandala is divided into anuvakas (lessons) and suktas (hymns). The ten mandalas have 85 anuvakas, 1080 suktas, and 10,589 verses. There is also a valakhilya section or supplement, which seems to have been a later addition.

Sama Veda

The Sama Veda Samhita is composed entirely in metrical form. It is about half as long as the Rig Veda Samhita and also borrows considerably from the Rig Veda Samhita. This shows that the Sama Veda was composed after the Rig Veda. The word sama means sweet songs or hymns. Since the Sama Veda consists of such hymns, it is known as the Sama Veda.

The second class of priests consists of the choristers (udgatri) utters these hymns. Sama hymns were sung so that the initial pitch or volume was high and was gradually reduced. Since the pitch never fluctuated between a high and a low, the listener’s mind was steadily lulled and drawn towards inner peace. Sama hymns were not pure chants (mantras) or pure songs; and they were a mixture of the two.

It is sometimes held that Soma Veda has 1000 branches, of which we know the names of only thirteen, and details of only three (Ranayana, Kuthuma, and Jaimini) branches are available in theSama Veda that is in circulation now. This Sama Veda consists of 1875 mantras, and the mantras are divided into two broad parts. The first is purvarchika, which consists of 650 mantras; the remaining 1225 mantras are in the next or second part, known as uttararchika.

Yajur Veda

The Yajur Veda Samhita consists of formulae and verses to be uttered by the adhvaryu (reciters). They carry out sacrificial rites while chanting the sacred texts and the hymns of the Yajur Veda. These priests are mainly entrusted with manual work that has to be performed at yajnas. The liturgical Yajur Veda is partly metrical; most of this part is extracted from the hymns of the Rig Veda. The remaining part is the prose. The word Yaj means to sacrifice, and it is from this that the name of Yajur Veda is derived.

Currently followed is the Vajasaneyi Samhita, which demarcates the Samhita and Brahmana parts, is referred to as white or pure Yajur Veda. This Samhita consists of forty books or chapters (adhyaya).

Atharva Veda 

The Rig Veda, the Yajur Veda, and the Sama Veda obtain their names from the nature of their contents. The name of the Atharva Veda is obtained differently. In the Rig Veda, there are references to a person named Atharvan. He is the first person to bring fire by rubbing two pieces of stick together. He could also vanquish evil demons through his miraculous powers. There were two other ancient families named the Angirasa and the Bhrigus. The Atharva Veda was first revealed to Atharvan, the Angirasa and the Bhrigus. The text obtains its name from Atharvan. The Atharva Veda is also known as the Brahma Veda. This is because the hymns of the text were meant for the brahmana overseers.

Unlike the other Vedas, the Atharva Veda contains charms and spells in addition to prayers. Atharva Veda is used to be recited to counteract evil influences during a sacrifice.

There are twenty books or kandas in the Atharva Veda. The Atharva Veda consists of 740 hymns and 5962 verses.

Why Hindu

We, a group of youths born into Hindu families, were raised in the rich culture of Vedic Sanatan Dharma, embracing its cultures and traditions. Post-graduation, recognizing the immense value of our Sanatan Dharma for humanity, we initiated the "Why Hindu" project. With guidance from our elders, we aim to create awareness about Hindu Dharma, delve into Vedic scripture, explore Vedic mantras, and elucidate the significance of festivals. Through this endeavor, we strive to share the profound teachings of our heritage, fostering understanding and appreciation for the timeless principles of Sanatan Dharma.

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