Vedic Scriptures and their classification
The sacred books of India, the Vedas, are generally believed to be the earliest literary record of the Indo-European race. It is indeed difficult to say when the earliest portions of these compositions came into existence.
Many shrewd guesses have been offered, but none of them can be proved to be incontestably true. Max Muller supposed the date to be 1200 B.C., Haug 2400 B.C. and Bāl Gaṅgādhar Tilak 4000 B.C.
The ancient Hindus seldom kept any historical record of their literary, religious or political achievements.
The Vedas were handed down from mouth to mouth from a period of unknown antiquity; and the Hindus generally believed that they were never composed by men.
It was therefore generally supposed that either they were taught by God to the sages, or that they were of themselves revealed to the sages who were the “seers” (mantradraṣṭā) of the hymns.
Thus we find that when some time had elapsed after the composition of the Vedas, people had come to look upon them not only as very old, but so old that they had, theoretically at least, no beginning in time, though they were believed to have been revealed at some unknown remote period at the beginning of each creation.
When the Vedas were composed, there was probably no system of writing prevalent in India.
But such was the scrupulous zeal of the Brahmins, who got the whole Vedic literature by heart by hearing it from their preceptors, that it has been transmitted most faithfully to us through the course of the last 3000 years or more with little or no interpolations at all.
The religious history of India had suffered considerable changes in the latter periods, since the time of the Vedic civilization, but such was the reverence paid to the Vedas that they had ever remained as the highest religious authority for all sections of the Hindus at all times.
Even at this day all the obligatory duties of the Hindus at birth, marriage, death, etc., are performed according to the old Vedic ritual.
The prayers that a Brahmin now says three times a day are the same selections of Vedic verses as were used as prayer verses two or three thousand years ago.
A little insight into the life of an ordinary Hindu of the present day will show that the system of image-worship is one that has been grafted upon his life, the regular obligatory duties of which are ordered according to the old Vedic rites.
Thus an orthodox Brahmin can dispense with image-worship if he likes, but not so with his daily Vedic prayers or other obligatory ceremonies.
Even at this day there are persons who bestow immense sums of money for the performance and teaching of Vedic sacrifices and rituals.
Most of the Sanskrit literatures that flourished after the Vedas base upon them their own validity, and appeal to them as authority.
Systems of Hindu philosophy not only own their allegiance to the Vedas, but the adherents of each one of them would often quarrel with others and maintain its superiority by trying to prove that it and it alone was the faithful follower of the Vedas and represented correctly their views.
The laws which regulate the social, legal, domestic and religious customs and rites of the Hindus even to the present day are said to be but mere systematized memories of old Vedic teachings, and are held to be obligatory on their authority.
Even under British administration, in the inheritance of property, adoption, and in such other legal transactions, Hindu Law was followed, and this claims to draw its authority from the Vedas.
To enter into details is unnecessary. But suffice it to say that the Vedas, far from being regarded as a dead literature of the past, are still looked upon as the origin and source of almost all literatures except purely secular poetry and drama.
Thus in short we may say that in spite of the many changes that time has wrought, the orthodox Hindu life may still be regarded in the main as an adumbration of the Vedic life, which had never ceased to shed its light all through the past.
Classification of the Vedic literature.
A beginner who is introduced for the first time to the study of later Sanskrit literature is likely to appear somewhat confused when he meets with authoritative texts of diverse purport and subjects having the same generic name “Veda” or “Śruti” (from sru to hear);
for Veda in its wider sense is not the name of any particular book, but of the literature of a particular epoch extending over a long period, say two thousand years or so.
As this literature represents the total achievements of the Indian people in different directions for such a long period, it must of necessity be of a diversified character.
If we roughly classify this huge literature from the points of view of age, language, and subject matter, we can point out four different types, namely:
the Samhitā or collection of verses (sam together, hita put), Brāhmaṇas, Āraṇyakas (“forest treatises”) and the Upaniṣads.
All these literatures, both prose and verse, were looked upon as so holy that in early times it was thought almost a sacrilege to write them; they were therefore learnt by heart by the Brahmins from the mouth of their preceptors and were hence called Śruti (literally anything heard).
There are four collections or Samhitās, namely Ṛig-Veda, Sama-Veda, Yajur-Veda and Atharva-Veda.
Of these the Ṛig- Veda is probably the earliest.
The Sama-Veda has practically no independent value, for it consists of stanzas taken (excepting only 75) entirely from the Ṛig-Veda, which were meant to be sung to certain fixed melodies, and may thus be called the book of chants.
The Yajur-Veda however contains in addition to the verses taken from the Ṛig-Veda many original prose formulas.
The arrangement of the verses of the Sama-Veda is solely with reference to their place and use in the Soma sacrifice;
the contents of the Yajur-Veda are arranged in the order in which the verses were actually employed in the various religious sacrifices. It is therefore called the Veda of Yajus—sacrificial prayers.
These may be contrasted with the arrangement in the Ṛig-Veda in this, that there the verses are generally arranged in accordance with the gods who are adored in them:
Thus, for example, first we get all the poems addressed to Agni or the Fire-god, then all those to the god Indra and so on.
The fourth collection, the Atharva- Veda, probably attained its present form considerably later than the Ṛig-Veda. In spirit, however, as Professor Macdonell says, “it is not only entirely different from the Rigveda but represents a much more primitive stage of thought.
While the Rigveda deals almost exclusively with the higher gods as conceived by a comparatively advanced and refined sacerdotal class,
the Atharva-Veda is, in the main a book of spells and incantations appealing to the demon world, and teems with notions about witchcraft current among the lower grades of the population, and derived from an immemorial antiquity.
These two, thus complementary to each other in contents are obviously the most important of the four Vedas.”
After the Samhitās there grew up the theological treatises called the Brāhmaṇas, which were of a distinctly different literary type. They are written in prose, and explain the sacred significance of the different rituals to those who are not already familiar with them:
“They reflect,” says Professor Macdonell, “the spirit of an age in which all intellectual activity is concentrated on the sacrifice, describing its ceremonies, discussing its value, speculating on its origin and significance.”
These works are full of dogmatic assertions, fanciful symbolism and speculations of an unbounded imagination in the field of sacrificial details.
The sacrificial ceremonials were probably never so elaborate at the time when the early hymns were composed. But when the collections of hymns were being handed down from generation to generation the ceremonials became more and more complicated.
Thus there came about the necessity of the distribution of the different sacrificial functions among several distinct classes of priests.
We may assume that this was a period when the caste system was becoming established, and when the only thing which could engage wise and religious minds was sacrifice and its elaborate rituals.
Free speculative thinking was thus subordinated to the service of the sacrifice, and the result was the production of the most fanciful sacramental and symbolic system, unparalleled anywhere but among the Gnostics.
It is now generally believed that the close of the Brāhmaṇa period was not later than 500 B.C.
As a further development of the Brāhmaṇas however we get the Āraṇyakas or forest treatises.
These works were probably composed for old men who had retired into the forest and were thus unable to perform elaborate sacrifices requiring a multitude of accessories and articles which could not be procured in forests.
In these, meditations on certain symbols were supposed to be of great merit, and they gradually began to supplant the sacrifices as being of a superior order.
It is here that we find that amongst a certain section of intelligent people the ritualistic ideas began to give way, and philosophic speculations about the nature of truth became gradually substituted in their place.
To take an illustration from the beginning of the Brihadāraṇyaka we find that instead of the actual performance of the horse sacrifice (Aśvamedha) there are directions for meditating upon the dawn (Uṣas) as the head of the horse, the sun as the eye of the horse, the air as its life, and so on.
This is indeed a distinct advancement of the claims of speculation or meditation over the actual performance of the complicated ceremonials of sacrifice.
The growth of the subjective speculation, as being capable of bringing the highest good, gradually resulted in the supersession of Vedic ritualism and the establishment of the claims of philosophic meditation and self-knowledge as the highest goal of life.
Thus we find that the Āraṇyaka age was a period during which free thinking tried gradually to shake off the shackles of ritualism which had fettered it for a long time.
It was thus that the Āraṇyakas could pave the way for the Upaniṣads, revive the germs of philosophic speculation in the Vedas, and develop them in a manner which made the Upaniṣads the source of all philosophy that arose in the world of Hindu thought.