Vedas and Ancient Indian Texts for Beginners

The Vedas are among one of the world’s (not just India’s) most ancient texts that are considered holy in Hinduism. Here, our aim is to present some basic questions and answers related to the Vedas and other ancient texts so that even beginners can understand easily. 

Vedas and Ancient Texts of India

What are the main ancient Indian spiritual texts?

The main ancient spiritual texts can be categorized into the following order chronologically:

  1. Vedas: Source of All Knowledge
  2. Darshan Shastra: Philosophy
  3. Smritis: Laws
  4. Puranas: Traditional Lores
  5. Itihas: Mythology or History out of which Ramayana and Mahabharata are the most popular

What is the meaning of the word, ‘Vedas’?

The word, ‘vedas’, comes from ‘Vid’ (विद्) dhatu (root word) in Sanskrit language which means ‘to know’ implying that the Vedas are knowledge or are the source of knowledge. 

Other words from the root word, Vid (विद्):

  • Vidya (विद्या) means education
  • Vidyalaya (विद्यालय) means place of learning or knowing
  • Vidyapak (विद्यापक) means the teacher and Vidyarthi means student (विद्यार्थी)

What is the meaning of the vedas and what do they consist of?

  1. Rigveda: Rig can be interpreted as praise/ worship/ or expressing respect. It consists of hymns about the world, all living creatures and the Gods.
  2. Yajurveda: It comes from the root word Yaj, and can be interpreted as karma or worship. It depicts the religious and social life of the Vedic people. The concepts of Karma, Prana (life force) and Manas (mind) are also discussed here.
  3. Samved: The root word saman means song. It contains melodies, chants, and description of dramatics and performing arts.
  4. Atharva Veda: The root word Atharva can be interpreted in many different ways. Ath means to start and arv means something. Some scholars say that is after the seer Atharva, who compiled this veda while some are of the opinion that it comes from Atharvanas which means everyday life. It talks about the beliefs and rituals concerning the day-to-day life of ‘Vedic’ people. Interestingly, out of all the four vedas, Atharvaveda is being studied by very few scholars. 

What is the structure of Vedas?

There are 4 Vedas in the following order:

  1. Rigveda
  2. Yajurveda
  3. Samaveda
  4. Atharvaveda

It is believed that the latter three vedas emerged from Rigveda

Portions: The Vedas have 4 portions as follows:

Samhitas: The core part of the vedas and is a collection of hymns

Brahmanas: Instruction manuals on how to run rituals as listed in vedas

Aranyakas: Aranya means jungle/forest so it is a guide for rituals for people who live in the forest. 

Upanishads: Made of two words, Up means near and shad means sit, they aim to bring one closer to the message of vedas. They contain the gist of vedas and are also considered to be the last part where vedas ends ie Vedanta (anta means ending)

Vedangs: The vedas have 4 limbs (Angs) called as Vedangs:

  • Shiksha (Phonetics)
  • Kalp (Ritual)
  • Vyakarana (Grammar)
  • Nirukta (Etymology)
  • Chanda (Metrics)
  • (Jyotish) Astrology

Upveda: The vedas have ancillary or supporting vedas that elaborate on the themes of vedas. They are called Upvedas. 

Ayurveda (Medicine): It teaches how to live a long and  healthy life.

Dhanurveda (Rules/regulations for warfare):  It is considered the science of ancient warfare

Gandharva Veda: It contains songs, dances, dramatics etc. 

Shilpa Veda (Sthapatya Ved): It is about architecture and various arts.

Arth Veda– They talk about aspects of everyday living such as social, economic, and political systems, business and administration. 

Up means near so they aim to bring us near to the vedas and can be viewed as the entry gate to vedas. Sanskrit teachers recommend that to understand the original vedas, start by learning Upved. In fact, upvedas derived from the vedas in chronological order:

  • Ayurveda comes from Rigveda
  • Dhanrveda comes from Yajurveda
  • Gandharvveda comes from Samveda
  • Shilpa Veda and Arthveda come from Atharvaveda

What are Smritis?

Smriti is a compilation of laws that are based on vedas. There were 18 rishis who took out all the laws from vedas and put it into smritis so there are 18 known smritis but it is argued that there could be more. 

What is Darshan Shastra?

Dharshan comes from the word drishti which literally means ‘to see’ but here it means to see inwards, so this is considered to be philosophy. There are 5 main philosophical schools of thought in chronological order as below:

Sankhya: This is related to consciousness and matter — Buddhi (intellect) and analyses the world order.

Yoga: This philosophical school emerged from Sankhya and puts the theory in Sankhya into action. It focuses on meditation, contemplation and liberation. The celebrated text ‘Yoga Sutras by Patanjali’ is a part of Yoga Darshan. 

Nyāya: The word Nyaya can be literally interpreted as justice but here, it means logic. This school explores the theory of knowledge, so it is considered as a school of epistemology.

Vaiśeṣika – The word can be interpreted as ‘world; or ‘universe’. This philosophical school of thought talks about atomism and empiricism — how the universe is composed of atoms, what are the elements and how the knowledge is derived from sensory experience. The concept that the 5 elements that make the outside words also reside within us is also explored here.

Mīmāṃsā – The word Mimansa can be interpreted as thinking or investigation. It is a deep reflection and contemplation on the knowledge in vedas. There are two types of Mimansa: Poorva Mimansa and Uttar Mimansa. 

What are Puranas?

Purana literally means old or ancient. Puranas are the doctrines of Puratan parampara i.e. ancient traditions. It should be noted that unlike Vedas, Smritis and Darshan Shastras, Puranas  are not derived from vedas. They can be considered as traditional lores meant for the masses who do not have the intellect to understand vedic texts. 

There are over 18 puranas and 18 ancillary puranas partly because different puranas gained popularity in different geographical regions. 

Why are the concepts of Purushya/Apurushya and Shruti/Smriti important to understand the structure of ancient Indian texts?

Purashya and Apurashya: Literally speaking, Purashya means man (can be interpreted as human) and Apurashya means non human. Vedas are considered tobe  the Apurashya i.e. non-human because there is no author of vedas. Followers of Hindu religion often take this to say that the vedas were written by God but there is another way of looking at it. Vedas are Apurusheya because the knowledge that they offer is the universal truth which doesn’t belong to a particular individual. For example, Sir Issac Newton didn’t invent gravity, he merely discovered it – it was always there. On the other hand all other texts such as upvedas, darshan shastras, puranas etc are purashaya because they have authors. 

Sruti and Smriti: Shruti means ‘heard’ and Smriti means ‘remembered’. Vedas are the Sruti texts because they were heard and discovered. Puranas, on the other hand, are Smriti texts because they were written and remembered. 

How many mantras are there in Veda?

There are over 20,000 mantras in all vedas combined. Rigveda has over 10,000 mantras, Yajurveda has approx 2,000 mantras, Samved contains nearly 2,000 mantras, and Atharvaved has over 5,000 mantras.

Who wrote the vedas?

The vedas do not have an author. That is why they are considered Apurashaya (non human) and Sruti (the one that is heard) texts. 

When were the vedas first written?

Actually, Vedas were never intended to be written. They were passed on orally and considered to be as part of the collective consciousness. 

Where are the original vedas stored? Are they in a museum in India?

Vedas were never written down. The earliest copies of vedas appeared in the Adi Shankaracharya period in India which was during 8th century CE, approximately 1300 years ago. However, these can not be considered as original manuscripts of vedas – they are copies of copies at best. Those who expect ‘original manuscripts of vedas’ to be in the form of stone tablets (like the famous Egyptian tablets) would be disappointed to know that vedas are older than the advent of writing itself. 

The surviving manuscripts which are a copy from the 8th century are safely stored in Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI) in Pune, India.

We hope you liked our simple presentation of key ancient Indian texts. You can also download this article as a pdf.

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