Introduction to the Vedas
The Vedas (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 dates of origin are unknown, however the Rigveda mentions the Saraswati River as the mightiest of all rivers, and because the river was reduced to a mere trickle in 1900 BCE, this Veda must have originated much prior to this date.
The Vedas are mostly written in verse and therefore are considered mantras. The reason the Vedas are primarily composed in verse as opposed to prose is because they were originally meant to be memorized, not written down, and verse is much easier to memorize than prose.
The individual verses contained in these compilations are known as mantras. Sound is the creation of the entire universe. The sound Om (A-U-M) is the universal sound, it is the seed. The Vedas are said to be feminine because Mother Shakti is sound (Matrika). Therefore all verses in the Vedas are preceded by Om, as the male seed fertilizes the verses.
Throughout the hymns of this early age there is little or no trace of fear. The forces of life are approached with loving reverence and awe, as allies of humanity in a world that is essentially friendly so as long as its secrets are understood.
These hymns reveal an intimate, almost mystical bond between worshipper and environment, a simultaneous sense of awe and kinship with the spirit that dwells in all things.
A Gift from the God(s)
This world is a perfect reflection of God. The Vedantic teaching sarvam khalvidam brahma, “All this is indeed the Absolute,” is the ultimate Truth. Everything is God.
– Swami Muktananda
The Vedas are apauruseya (not of human agency). They are supposed to have been directly revealed by God, and thus are called shruti, distinguishing them from other religious texts, which are called smriti (“what is remembered”). The Vedic texts are organized around four canonical collections of metrical material known as Samhitās, of which the first three are related to the performance of yajna (sacrifice) in historical Vedic religion.
The Vedic hymns are invocations to various higher powers and reverential celebration.
Sacrifice vs. Devotion
The Vedic tradition, over time, became very sophisticated and demanding. By the time of the Brahmanas (texts explaining the Vedic rituals and mythology) the sacrificial components of the Vedas seems to have stifled the devotional elements. The proper performance of the various rituals and appeasement of the deities or their enlisting in the sacrificial tasks had become more important than personal devotion to the Divine. Perhaps the never-ending demands of ritualism caused many priests to be motivated more by a sense of duty than a heart over-flowing with emotions of spiritual longing or gratitude.
The Four Vedas
- The Rigveda (the book of Mantra), containing hymns to be recited by the hotar, or presiding priest [2000 – 1100 BCE]
- The Yajurveda (the book of ritual), containing formulas to be recited by the adhvaryu or officiating priest [1500 – 500 BCE]
- The Samaveda (the book of song), containing formulas to be sung by the udgatar or priest that chants [1500 – 500 BCE]
- The Atharvaveda (the book of spell), a collection of spells and incantations, apotropaic charms and speculative hymns [1500 – 500 BCE]
The Oral Tradition
Shloka (or Sloka)
- Verse of praise generally consisting of 32 letters in Sanskrit (or 32 syllables of English).
Sukta (or Sookta/Suktam)
- Set of hymns/Shlokas from the Vedas, composed by rishis in adoration of deities as an expression of their perception in deep meditation.
- Set of hymns/Shlokas, composed by rishis in adoration of deities as an expression of their perception in deep meditation. Usually, stuti is a smaller piece than a strotram.
- Ashtottara-shata-nāma stotras
- 108 names.
- Type of Hindu scripture in which a deity is referred to by 1,000 or more different names. Sahasranamas are classified as stotras, or hymns of praise, a type of devotional scripture. Sahasra means a thousand, or more generally, a very large number. Nama (nāman) means name. The literal translation of sahasranama is “a thousand names”.