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The Vedas, the Oldest Literature in the World

Updated on June 23, 2013

"A person can achieve everything by being simple and humble." — Rigveda

"Water has a unique curative property which is not found in any other liquid. Adequate intake of water drive out the toxins from our body and make the body healthy." — Rigveda

Source

As I age, so also does my interest in things ancient grows. Thus, it is not surprising that I would be interested in knowing the thoughts of our world's earliest thinkers and what could that be, if not the oldest extant literature in the world, The Vedas, Hinduism's oldest scriptures.

Composed in Vedic Sanskrit (archaic form of Sanskrit) from roughly 1500 BC - 1000 BC, the Vedas comprises 4 canonical collections, the first 3 of which relate to sacrificial rituals in Vedism, the religion of the Vedic period (1500 BC - 500 BC):

  1. Rigveda: Hymns to various deities, composed in metre and intended for loud recitation;
  2. Yajurveda: Hymns for the performance of rituals, composed partly in prose and intended for recitation in lower voice at sacrifices;
  3. Samaveda: Hymns for the performance of rituals, composed in metre and intended for singing at the Soma (ritual drink) ceremonies;
  4. Atharvaveda: Spells and incantations, used in sorcery and for healing.

The word "Veda" in Sanskrit means "knowledge" and includes all knowledge, whether related to liturgy and ritual, or otherwise. Because the 4 canonical collections of the Vedas were revelations that occurred to the Vedic rishis (sages), while in deep meditation, they are also referred to as "apourusheya", meaning "not authored by man".

The Vedas was passed down orally from generation to generation until about 1000 AD, although they were gradually put into writing, beginning from about the 1st century BC onward.

Essence of the Vedas: Rigveda

Hymns from The Vedas - Creation

1. Rigveda

The Rigveda is the oldest of the 4 Vedic canonical collections and comprises 1,028 hymns, divided into 10 books (mandalas) of varying age and length. Although it consists primarily of hymns to the various Vedic deities, the Rigveda also offers a mythological account of the origin of the World, as well as detailed accounts of the daily life — socioeconomic, religious, and political — of the Vedic civilization.

The Rigveda was written by 7 principal authors from different priestly groups over a period of several centuries, as well as by several other minor authors. Composed between around 1500 BC to 1000 BC, it was passed down orally from generation to generation and finally committed to writing in stages, some time after 300 BC.

Rig means "praise", and the hymns of the Rigveda are an expression of adoration and worship, addressed to the various Vedic deities such as Indra, Agni, and Soma. They reflect Man's relationship with the deities as a friend, as a child to his parents, and as a servant to his master. This concept forms the very foundation of Vedic and Hindu philosophy.

To give a rough idea of what the Rigveda is all about, its first hymn reads:

Laud Agni, the chosen Priest, God, minister of sacrifice,
The hotar, lavishest of wealth.
Worthy is Agni to be praised by living as by ancient seers.
He shall bring hitherward the Gods.
Through Agni man obtaineth wealth, yea, plenty waxing day by day,
Most rich in heroes, glorious.
Agni, the perfect sacrifice which thou encompassest about
Verily goeth to the Gods.
May Agni, sapient-minded Priest, truthful, most gloriously great,
The God, come hither with the Gods.
Whatever blessing, Agni, thou wilt grant unto thy worshiper,
That, Aṅgiras, is indeed thy truth.
To thee, dispeller of the night, O Agni, day by day with prayer
Bringing thee reverence, we come
Ruler of sacrifices, guard of Law eternal, radiant One,
Increasing in thine own abode.
Be to us easy of approach, even as a father to his son:
Agni, be with us for our weal.

The following hymn seems to bear a close resemblance to Genesis in the Bible:

"We meditate on the brilliant light of the Creator who has created the Universe, who is worthy of worship, who is the embodiment of knowledge and light, who is the Mover of all sins and ignorance. May He enlighten our intellect!"

The chanting sound of the Rigveda reminds me of the months that I had stayed in various Buddhist monasteries, participating in Pali chanting. Not only the melody, but also some of the words, were very similar. Did Buddhist chanting follow Vedic chanting, or was Vedic chanting adapted to follow Buddhist chanting? I wonder. Wikipedia says:

The [Rigveda] text in the following centuries underwent pronunciation revisions and standardization. This redaction would have been completed around the 6th century BC. Exact dates are not established, but they fall within the pre-Buddhist period (400 BC).

Essence of the Vedas: Yajurveda

2. Yajurveda

The Yajurveda is the 2nd of the 4 Vedic canonical collections. Yaj in Sanskrit means "to sacrifice" or "to worship".

Composed roughly between 1000 BC - 600 BC, the Yajurveda includes verses adapted from the Rigveda, and was compiled as a manual for the priest (adhvaryu) officiating at all sacrificial rites. Each verse is accompanied by an action in sacrifice. Prohibition from eating beef is mentioned in the Yajurveda.

Due to a schism among its earliest teachers, there are 2 primary versions of the Yajurveda:

  1. Shukla (white): Comprising approx. 2,000 verses in 40 books, with frequent repetition of verses, prose commentaries are provided in a separate text, the Shatapatha Brahmana; and
  2. Krishna (black): Unlike the Shukla, the Krishna text combines both verses and prose commentaries. It also contains a few verses less than the Shukla but nevertheless, retains the sequence of verses to a substantial degree.

To give a rough idea of what the Yajurveda is about, the first hymn of Chapter 1: The New and Full moon Sacrifices, reads:

For food thee, for strength thee!
Ye are winds, ye are approachers.
Let the god Savitr impel you to the most excellent offering.
O invincible ones, swell with the share for the gods,
Full of strength, of milk, rich in offspring, free from sickness, from disease.
Let no thief, no evil worker, have control over you.
Let Rudra's dart avoid you.
Abide ye, numerous, with this lord of cattle.
Do thou protect the cattle of the sacrificer.

In its present form, the Yajurveda also contains numerous additions that are evidently later than even the Ahtarvaveda. These additions include the almost complete development of the caste system, as well as advances in the arts and sciences.

Essence of the Vedas: Samaveda

3. Samaveda

The Samaveda or "Veda of Holy Songs" is the 3rd of the 4 Vedic canonical collections. Sāman in Sanskrit means "melody of a metrical hymn".

Containing 15 books and 34 chapters, the Samaveda contains only 458 hymns and is, thus, the smallest of the 4 Vedic canonical collections. It is largely not an original work, with some 80-90% of its text being merely a rearrangement of verses from the Rigveda itself to act as a manual for the chanting priest (udgatar) to use ONLY to perform the Soma sacrificial rites. During the ritual, the juice of the Soma plant, mixed with milk and other ingredients, was offered in libation to various deities. The Samaveda is thus, in actual fact, a reduced version of the Rigveda, with no distinctive lessons of its own. Nonetheless, there are frequent variations from the Rigvedic text, with verses altered, either by prolongation, repetition, and/or insertion of stray syllables (stobha), when sung.

Neither the date of the compilation of the Samaveda nor the name of the compiler(s) are known, but it is generally believed to have been written down, only after the Aryans arrived in India.

Essence of the Vedas: Atharvaveda

4. Atharvaveda

The Atharvaveda is the last of the 4 Vedic canonical collections and consists mostly of spells of both black and white magic. Many epigrams (subhashitas) found in the Indian languages can be traced to the Atharvaveda.

The Atharvaveda comprises 20 books, with a total of 730 hymns, mostly metrical. About 80 of these hymns are in prose, while some 100 hymns contains only 1-2 verses. Around 20% of the verses are derived from the Rigveda itself.

The Atharvaveda is the first text of the Indian subcontinent to mention "iron" and is, thus, believed to be composed during the early Iron Age (12th - 10th centuries BC) of India. Because it is completely different from the other 3 Vedic collections, its hymns being simpler in language and more diverse in character, many scholars do not consider the Atharvaveda to be part of the Vedas.

There are 213 hymns dealing with healing, the extension of life, and bliss. Ayurveda, an Indian system of traditional medicine, is said to originate from the Atharvaveda. The Atharvaveda, however, does not define health as a mere absence of disease, nor does it associate diseases with a cornucopia of herbs and medicines for curing them. Instead, it asked "why live long" — the idea being to make us ponder over such questions as who we are, what state we want to attain, and how we want to live — offering an answer as follows:

For a hundred autumns, may we see,
For a hundred autumns, may we live,
For a hundred autumns, may we know,
For a hundred autumns, may we rise,
For a hundred autumns, may we progress,
For a hundred autumns, may we be,
For a hundred autumns, may we become.

According to the Atharvaveda, bliss is all around us and we only need to be conscious of it in our every encounter:

May the wind blow us bliss,
May the Sun shine bliss on us,
May the days be blissful to us,
And the night approach us blissfully,
And blissfully the dawn.

The Vedas Originated from the Aryans

And just as I thought that I had this oldest of Hindu scriptures all neatly wrapped up, I had the great fortune of accidentally bumping into the below video, while combing for YouTube videos to add to this hub.

The below video claims that the Rigvedic gods are not of Indian origin. Neither the Sanskrit language nor the Rigveda are of Indian origin but originated from the Aryans in Central Asia. 4,000 years ago, the Karakum Desert (the Black Desert) was a fertile oasis, home to thousands of settlements. All of these settlements were subsequently destroyed by climate change during the Late Bronze Age. Led by the God of Fire, the Aryan tribes then moved eastward over several centuries, burning forests and looking for new lands. Some of the rivers toward the Afghan borders, such as the Swat and the Kabul rivers, are described in the Rigveda. Around 1500 BC, after the death of the Indus cities, the Aryans began to enter the subcontinent and settled in the valley of the Indus, the river that gave India its name.

Since as early as the 1970s, Prof Victor Sarianidi of the Institute of Archaelogy, Moscow, has been excavating a large settlement from the Bronze Age called "Gonur Depe" in Mary province, Turkmenistan. The settlement was presumably the capital of a lost civilization, the ancient country of Margush, and probably the 5th center of world civilization, along with the civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and China. It contained a palace, a huge ensemble of tombs, and many temples.

The Aryans arrived here well before 2000 BC, and defended themselves in great mud-brick citadels. They were cattle herders and had a class of priests who performed fire rituals on special altars. These Aryans made the soma, a sacred intoxicating drink comprising poppy, cannabis, and ephedra that were mentioned in the Rigveda. And they had horses and wheeled-wagons. (Horses were not known in the Indus Civilization.) The horse sacrifice was the greatest ritual that an Aryan king would do.

Location of Turkmenistan in Relation to India

100% Proof Rig Veda is Not Hindus Scriptures And Sanskrit is Not Hindus Language

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    • profile image

      Vish 2 years ago

      Aryan Theory is dunked, so does your conclusion.

    • Akriti Mattu profile image

      Akriti Mattu 2 years ago from Shimla, India

      It feels so so good to see a foreigner write about the Vedas of my country.

      Brilliantly written.Voted up.

    • WalterPoon profile image
      Author

      Poon Poi Ming 3 years ago from Malaysia

      Sraven, Wikipedia says: "Some linguists hypothesized that Dravidian-speaking people were spread throughout the Indian subcontinent before a series of Indo-Aryan migrations."

    • profile image

      sraven 3 years ago

      WalerPoon, you seem to take one point in temporal and geographical realms and seem to conclude 'aryans came TO india' - what a colossal mistake one could make. when you see a similarity of artifacts at one place and two other places, one to the east and another to the west, how could you conclude the movement was from west to east, or 'aryans' came to india from outside? why not the other way around - they originated in india and migrated out. in the youtube you refer to prof. victor sarianidi clearly states that "when the Murghab river moved west, so did the migrants", proving the migration was towards the west; i.e., aryans didn't come TO india, rather migrated AWAY from India, carrying with them the ashwa (word for horse) medha, the skills (charriot building, etc), rich language, and all. it would be a great service if you correct your logic that could contribute to the 'facts' you demand to authentically espouse in these pages.

    • profile image

      raven 3 years ago

      you seem to take one point in temporal and geographical realms and seem to conclude 'aryans came to india' - what a colossal mistake one could make. when you see a similarity of artifacts at one place and two other places, one to the east and another to the west, how could you conclude 'aryans' came to india from outside? why not the other way around - they originated in india and migrated out. in the youtube you refer to prof. victor sarianidi clearly states that "when the Murghab river moved west, so did the migrants" proving the migration was towards the west and aryans didn't come TO india, rather migrated away from India, carrying with them the ashwa medha, the language, and all. it would be great service if you correct your logic that would contribute to the facts.

    • WalterPoon profile image
      Author

      Poon Poi Ming 4 years ago from Malaysia

      Mylindaelliott, thanks for dropping by. The earliest extant writings in the world... simply amazing! Whether they make sense or they don't, they're still simply amazing!

    • mylindaelliott profile image

      mylindaelliott 4 years ago from Louisiana

      Very interesting. I'm interested in ancient writing but don't have the patience to study them. Your hub provides me with a lot of interesting information.

    • WalterPoon profile image
      Author

      Poon Poi Ming 4 years ago from Malaysia

      Hi Mel Carriere, thank you for your comment. There is another YouTube video that proposes that Central Asia and India be considered as part of the West because they share a common history.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 4 years ago from San Diego California

      A lot of people do not realize that the great branch of Indo-European languages, which includes English and most of the European languages as well as the tongues of the Indian subcontinent, originated from the Central Asian Aryans who composed the Vedas you are writing about. Very well researched hub. I am fascinated by this sort of information.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      that is what I was thinking. Under a boojum tree after fasting for 2 days, singing crazy music. Whoa banboa.

      My good buddies in the Hopi and Navajo tribes here do the same deal with Peyote. If I am not mistaken Jesus filled a bunch of Jars with the best Wine in the world, so they could party on at a wedding.

      Listening to Taj Mahal and wishing love to you.

    • WalterPoon profile image
      Author

      Poon Poi Ming 4 years ago from Malaysia

      Ericdierker, wild ass drink? Are you referring to the Soma drink? I don't know what the Soma plant juice tastes like but they also add poppy and cannabis. And I bet one drink is more than enough to write a bestseller, LOL.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Just plain old fascinating. Today I am happy I am older and enjoy pondering such matters.

      I like to think the Gayatra Mantra was custom made. When at about 26 a Jewish kid raised in Egypt mainly took a long walk and ended up hanging out with some spiritual dudes and dudettes down on the river Indus. And as they were comparing notes and drinking that wild ass drink started punching out a tune.

      Please excuse me.

      http://www.eaglespace.com/spirit/gayatribywords.ph...

    • WalterPoon profile image
      Author

      Poon Poi Ming 4 years ago from Malaysia

      Ericdierker, thank you for dropping by. You are real fast! As far as I understand, the Vedas are still chanted/sung in Vedic Sanskrit. Surprisingly, the Rigveda sounds so similar to the Buddhist Pali chanting that I had participated (without understanding a single word), when I was in the monasteries. Wonder who copied who? (What a question!)

      As to origin, I suppose it would be fair to determine where the book is written. If Saltykov- Stchedrin writes the book while on American soil, then it is American. But the Rigveda was written outside India and the other 3 books borrowed substantial portions from the first book.

      Ericdierker, you are sharp. I missed the part: "... these Aryan dudes burnt forests -- kind of anti Vedas." As to building with mud, I guess it is their culture. They might have totally forgotten that wood can be used to build houses, after they stayed too long in the Karakum Desert, LOL.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Extraordinary. A real treat to read. Are our meditation mantras/songs from "modern" Sanskrit derived from these same scriptures? Or was there a total break between them?

      I always find origins funny: If Saltykov- Stchedrin "im"migrates to the Americas and writes a book while there, is it Russian in origin or American?

      I also took note that these Aryan dudes burnt forests -- kind of anti Vedas and then built with mud.

      A great philosopher once said "who you going to believe, me or your eyes?" --W.C. Fields