The Vedic Literature of Ancient Indian History. Composition of the Oldest Text in the world.

After the end of Harappan Civilisation, there were several developments in different parts of the Indian subcontinent. This was the period when the Vedic literature was developed by the people living along the Indus and its tributaries. This period (1500 BC – 500 BC) has been named Vedic Period as ‘Vedas’ – the oldest scriptures of Hinduism were composed during that time. The Vedic period was one of the most important time for Hinduism as many Hindu religious texts were composed during that time.

During the early Vedic period the Indo-Aryans settled into the northern part of the Indian subcontinent. They brought their specific traditions and cultures which were referred as the Vedic Civilisation.

The beginning of Vedic age:

Vedic age began with the arrival of Aryans. The origin of Aryans still remains a controversial point among the historians. According to the most popular belief, the Aryans were supposed to have migrated from Central Asia into the Indian subcontinent in several stages during 2000 BC – 1500 BC. The group of Aryans that first appeared in the subcontinent settled in the present Frontier Province and the Punjab which was then called ‘Sapta Sindhu‘ i.e. region of seven rivers.

Vedic Literature:

The Vedic literature comprises of four literary productions.

  1. The Vedas or Samhitas
  2. The Brahmanas
  3. The Aranyakas
  4. The Upanishads

1. The Vedas or Samhitas:

The Vedas are the most important part of Vedic literature. Vedas are called “Apaurasheya” i.e. not created by man but God-gifted and “Nitya” i.e. existing in all eternity. The word ‘Veda‘ is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Veda‘, means to know or knowledge per excellenceThe Vedic texts are divided between ‘Shruti’ (based on hearing) which is distinct from ‘Smriti’ (based on memory).

There are four Vedas, a) Rig Veda, b) Sama Veda, c) Yajur Veda, d) Atharva Veda

Rig Vedic text of Vedic Literature
The Rig Vedic manuscript (Image source: Wikipedia)
a) Rig Veda:
  • Rig Veda is the oldest text in the world and known as “the first testament of mankind“.
  • Rig Veda was written between 1700 BC – 1500 BC when the Aryans lived in Punjab or Sapta Sindhu.
  • It contains 10,500 verses and 1028 hymns, divided into ten mandalas.
  • The 10th mandala contains the famous ‘Purushasukta hymn‘ that explains the origin of four Varnas (Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya & Shudra).
  • The hymns of Rig Veda were recited by ‘Hotri‘.
b) Sama Veda:
  • Sama Veda derived its root from ‘Saman’ which means melody.
  • It is a collection of melodies contain 1549 verses.
  • The hymns of Sama Veda were recited by ‘Udgatri‘.
c) Yajur Veda:
  • Yajurveda is a compound Sanskrit word composed of ‘yajur‘ meaning prose mantra and ‘Veda‘ meaning knowledge. Yajur Veda is the Veda of prose mantras.
  • Yajur Veda is a ritualistic Veda divided into two parts, Krishna Yajur Veda & Shukla Yajur Veda.
  • The hymns were recited by ‘Adhvaryus‘.
d) Atharva Veda:
  • Atharva Veda is the latest Veda among the four and it is a book of magical formula.
  • For a very long period, it was not included in the list of Vedas.
  • This Veda contains charms and spells to ward off evil and disease.

2. The Brahmanas:

  • The Brahmanas are the collection of ancient Indian texts with commentaries on the hymns of the four Vedas. Brahmanas are the explanation of Vedic rituals.
  • The word ‘Brahma’means sacrifice. Various sacrifices and rituals have been elaborately described here.
  • The Brahmanas language creates a separate stage of Vedic Sanskrit which is younger than the text of the Rig Veda.

3. The Aranyakas:

There were some sages lived in the forests who explained Vedic scriptures to their students in the form of Aranyakas. The word ‘Aranya‘ means forest & ‘Aranyaka‘ means belonging to the forest.

  • The Aranyakas explain metaphysics and symbolism of sacrifice.
  • These forest books were taught in the forests due to their magical powers.
  • The Aranyakas are the concluding part of the Brahmanas.

4. The Upanishads:

The word ‘Upanishad‘ means “be seated at the feet of Guru to receive teaching“.

  • They are generally called Vedanta, as they come towards the end of the Veda.
  • Upanishads indicate knowledge acquired by sitting close to the teacher. Their topics of discussion were the creation of the Universe, the origin of mankind etc.
  • There are 108 Upanishads. ‘Vrihadaranyaka‘ is the oldest Upanishad.
  • The period between 800BC – 500BC is known as the period of Upanishads.

Other literary forms of Vedic Literature:

Smriti‘ (based on memory) – the part of Vedic literature which is distinct from ‘Shruti‘ (based on hearing) comprises of six literary works.

  1. Vedangas
  2. Dharmasastras
  3. Epics
  4. Puranas
  5. Upvedas
  6. Shad-Dharshanas
1. Vedangas:

In order to understand the Vedic literature, we need to know about the Vedangas. These are treatises on science and arts. The Vedangas are six auxiliary disciplines in Vedic culture that developed in ancient times, they are –

  • Shiksha (focussed on the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet, accent, stress, melody, and rules of euphonic combination of words during a Vedic recitation)
  • Kalpa (focussed on standardizing procedures for Vedic rituals)
  • Vyakarana (focussed on the rules of grammar)
  • Chhandas (focussed on the poetic meters)
  • Nirukta (explanation of words, particularly those that are archaic and have ancient uses with unclear meaning)
  • Jyotisha (focused on astronomy and astrology)
2. Dharmasastras:
  • The Dharmasastras are the later Vedic age treatises on the ethical and social philosophy of Hinduism. It is the part of Hindu Smriti.
  • The textual compilation of Dharmasastra was composed in poetic verses.
  • Dharmasastras are mainly law books written in sloka metre.
  • The books not only cover the civil and criminal laws of the time but also covers the daily life of the individual. The caste system, life at the Ashramas, economic conditions, architecture etc. were also explained.
  • Manu Smriti is the oldest and the most famous Dharmasastra composed by King Manu.
3. Epics:

There are mainly two Mahakavyas or epics.

  • The Ramayana (by Valmiki): It is also known as “Adi Kavya”. It is the oldest epic of the world. At present, there are 24,000 shlokas or verses (originally consisted 6000 verses) divided into seven kandas in it. The composition of the Ramayana started in 5th century BC.
  • The Mahabharata (by Ved Vyasa): It is the longest epic of the world. The Mahabharata is older compared to the Ramayana and shows the social and political system from 10th century BC to 4th century A.D.
4. Puranas:
  • The word Puranas means ”ancient” or ”old”.
  • Puranas composed primarily in Sanskrit but also in regional languages.
  • There are 18 Maha Puranas & 18 Upa or Minor Puranas.
  • Matsya Purana” is the oldest Puranic text.
  • The Puranas genre of literature is found in both Hinduism and Jainism.
5. Upvedas:

The Upvedas or the auxiliary Vedas were traditionally associated with Vedas. There are four Upavedas.

  • Ayurveda (medicine) – Associated with Rig Veda
  • Gandharvaveda (music) – Associated with Sama Veda
  • Dhanurveda (archery) – Associated with Yajur Veda
  • Arthaveda (science of craft/wealth) – Associated with Atharva Veda
6. Shad-Darshanas:

Shad-Darshana is a Sanskrit word which means ”six views” or ”six philosophies”. The mainstream ancient Indian philosophy includes six systems.

  1. Sankhya Darshana – Founded by Kapila
  2. Yoga Darshana – by Patanjali
  3. Nyaya Darshana – by Akshapada Gautama
  4. Vaishesika Darshana – by Uluka Kanada
  5. Mimansa / Purva-Mimansa – by Jaimini
  6. Vedant / Uttara-Mimansa – by Badarayana

 

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