Of the entire body of Hindu sacred texts, The Vedas alone are Sruti, ‘that which was heard.’ Embedded within The Vedas are essential treatises on the nature of Atman, our soul, and its relationship to Brahman, the Ultimate Reality.
Tradition tells of forest-dwelling sages (rishis) who developed a level of consciousness that enabled them to ‘hear’ in their hearts the truths of the universe, hence That Which is Heard. The rishis interpreted these truths to create The Vedas, the core of Hindu belief.
Another origin myth says Brahma created The Vedas whole, spreading them throughout the four directions of the cosmos from the four mouths of his four faces (note 1).
However they came to be, The Vedas are consist of four texts, passed down orally from Brahmin father to son before being transcribed into written Sanskrit some 3500 years ago (notes 2 and 3). As Sruti, The Veda’s four books of hymns, rituals, mantras, theology, are deemed scripture and therefore fixed.
Rig Veda is the oldest of the four and a collection of over 1,000 hymns over 10,000 verses, most of which praise one or another of the Vedic gods, such as Agni, Indra, Varuna, etc. Some of the Rig’s verses remain in use today for rites such as mantras, prayers, funerals and weddings. Some scholars believe some of these prayers and rituals are pre-historic; the Agni fire sacrifice being one (note 4).
Sama Veda is the basis for hymns sung using specific melodies derived from the Rig Veda.
Yajur Veda is a compilation of ritual mantras believed to have psychological and spiritual powers. Mantras are used in ritual and spiritual practice to carry the thoughts and prayers of devotees to the gods and goddesses.
Athar Veda, sometimes called ‘The Veda of magic formulas,’ a compilation of hymns describing esoteric knowledge of things like the treatment of ailments, the making of and defence against spells, domestic rituals such as rites of passage, as well as more in-depth theosophic treatises.
As documents written by mortals, The Vedas have been subject to endless examination, and these observations are set down as the Samhitas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, as well as early and late Upanishads, and all are deemed sacred by association with The Vedas.
While it is The Vedas, which are the foundation of Hindu belief and practice, it is the early Upanishads which elevate its core values. They were extracted from The Vedas over time and continue to evolve to the present day, where they are widely known as the Vedanta. In turn, the philosophical aspects of the Vedanta are discussed at length in the Brahma Sutra, which delves further into the concept of Brahman and Atman, critiques of other dharmic options such as Buddhism and Jainism, advice on achieving moksha through intense meditation and the benefits of spiritual knowledge.
In south India, The Vedas (Sanskrit for knowledge) are known as Marai (Tamil for ‘hidden, secret, mystery’) and the core of Hindu belief interpreted from a uniquely Tamil perspective. The worship of Shiva and Vishnu, in particular, bear the hallmarks of ancient pre-Vedic beliefs, possibly due to Harappan origins. South India was spared the turmoil of successive invasions such as those suffered in the north, so the old Vedic beliefs remain cohesive.
In pre-Vedic south India, the elemental forces affecting people’s lives were little understood. Mysterious natural events, such as monsoon rains and disease, were appeased through ritual sacrifice and over time the supernatural powers which oversaw these events took physical form as the gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. Deities were believed responsible for almost any event beyond the control of individuals and ritual offerings of prayer, flowers and symbolic food items to the gods and goddesses remain fundamental to the practice of Hinduism.
Over a span of centuries ancient Tamil beliefs, practices and mythology were being absorbed into Vedic beliefs and practices, but that process was interrupted in the 8th century AD when a devotional revolution took place in south India as the Bhakti movement was born. Wandering Tamil poet-saints singing passionate devotional hymns to Shiva, Vishnu and Shakti ignited a new, intimate, personal mode of worship independent of ritual, gender or caste and its focus on a personal connection between worshipper and deity remains the standard practice throughout Hinduism. Temple worship with priestly intermediaries is common, but Bhakti is the preferred mode of worship for daily puja rituals.
Over 600 years, these hymns and poems were compiled as sacred texts, the Triumurai for those devoted to Shiva, and the Naalayira Divya Prabhandham, dedicated to Vishnu. They were composed in the Tamil language rather than the Vedic Sanskrit, and their passionate devotional hymns and poetic descriptions of the deities became a guide and reference, not just for Hindu scholars, musicians and dancers, but to Chola bronzesmiths as well.
Note 1 – It is said that Brahma created the seers solely to hear The Vedas and share them with humankind.
Note 2 – As facilitators of temple ritual, young Brahmins were, and are, required to memorize the Vedic hymns and mantras they will perform throughout their lives with subtle nuances of intonation and rhythm. Fastidious cross-checks ensure virtually no errors occur as this sacred knowledge is passed down through generations, and this oral tradition remains strong even today, with one Brahmin family in south India reportedly having passed The Vedas down without error for 3000 years.
Note 3 – Exactly when The Vedas were written down is unknown and likely to remain so. Contemporary Hindu nationalists in India claim The Vedas pre-date any other world religion, but because memory and speech leave no trace, that assertion is impossible to confirm. What no historian disputes, however, is Hinduism’s place as the world’s oldest living religion.
Note 4 – When Shailja and I married, the ceremony involved a series of sacrificial rites in Sanskrit around the temple’s sacred fire, all features of Vedic rituals.
The Vedas – That Which was HeardTerry Curell2019-11-07T09:38:55-08:00
The sacred literature of Hinduism is a vast, many-layered, aggregation of ancient thought, belief and tradition with The Vedas as its core. The texts are divided into two classifications; Sruti – that which was heard, and Smrti – that which is remembered. The difference between them is Sruti is accepted by most Hindus as something akin to revelation and therefore inviolate, whereas Smrti consists of several books containing the divinely inspired thoughts and opinions of scholars who have expounded and elaborate upon foundational Sruti. The expansion and revision of the Smrti texts continue to this day as Hinduism embraces and reflects modern values and priorities.
We live in a world where knowledge is at our fingertips, and it’s important to remember the origins of the oldest Hindu scripture are from a pre-literate oral tradition. The Vedas literally translates as The Knowledge andlearned by rote and passed from generation to generation. It takes a great deal of time to memorize such a vast corpus of information and an effective technique is to repeat it over and over in a sing-song fashion rather than straight memorization, which would explain why so much of Hinduism’s sacred literature takes the form of poetry and hymns.
When such a vast and complicated body of work is held in memory it requires members of the community exempt from time-consuming secular tasks to spend their days teaching or learning or in temple service, and the Brahmin caste developed out of this requirement. As custodians of the mysteries governing the spiritual health of the community, they enjoyed a special status and were generally exempt from secular demands on their time. Information in written form can be shared, therefore it took many centuries for the Brahmins to relinquish their exclusive access to Hindu sacred literature. Their role in a community’s spiritual life continues much as it always has however as custodians of temples and temple rituals.