Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: Vedas from Philip's Encyclopedia

Ancient and most sacred writings of Hinduism. They consist of series of hymns and formulaic chants that constituted a Hindu liturgy. There are four Vedas: Rig Veda, containing a priestly tradition originally brought to India by Aryans; Yajur Veda, consisting of prayers and sacred formulas; Sama Veda, containing melodies and chants; and Atharva Veda, a collection of popular hymns, incantations and magic spells. The Vedas were composed between c.1500 and 1200 bc.

Summary Article: Veda
from Encyclopedia of Global Religions

The term Veda, derived from the root vid, “to know,” means “knowledge.” The Veda functions in Hindu traditions as an authoritative category that is ascribed the status of transcendent knowledge and has both textual and supratextual dimensions. As a textual phenomenon, the Veda is revered in many Hindu traditions as the paradigmatic scripture that has historically provided a legitimating source of authority for later sacred texts and teachings up to the contemporary period. With approximately 1 billion Hindus in India and the diaspora, the Veda is thus a phenomenon with global reach whose authority continues to reverberate throughout the transnational network of Hindu communities and beyond.

The term Veda is used to designate a corpus of sacred texts in at least four different senses. (1) The term is used in its narrow sense to designate the four Samhitās (ca. 1500-800 BCE)—Ṛg-Veda, Yajur-Veda, Sāma-Veda, and Atharva-Veda—which are collections of verses (ṛcs), sacrificial formulae (yajuses), chants (sāmans), and incantations and imprecations (atharvāṅgirases or atharvans), respectively. The versified portions of the four Saṃhitās are termed mantras. (2) The term is subsequently extended to include not only the Saṃhitās but also three other categories of texts: (a) the Brāhmaṇas (ca. 900-650 BCE), sacrificial manuals attached to the Saṃhitās that are concerned with correct performance of the Vedic fire sacrifices (yajñas); (b) the āraṇyakas, “forest books” that reflect on the inner meaning of the sacrificial rituals; (c) and the Upanishads (ca. 800- 200 BCE), the latest portions of the Vedas, which contain metaphysical speculations concerned with the attainment of knowledge (jñāna) of ultimate reality. (3) In post-Vedic speculations the term is at times extended even further to include two additional categories of texts that are designated as the “fifth Veda”: (a) the Itihāsas, or epics—the Mahabharata (ca. 200 BCE-100 CE) and the Ramayana of Vālmīki (ca. 200 BCE-200 CE) and (b) the Puranas (ca. 300-1000 CE and after), encyclopedic texts comprising cosmogonic myths, genealogies, and narratives about gods, kings, and sages. (4) Finally, Veda functions as an encompassing category within which can be subsumed potentially all sacred texts.

This entry discusses the distinction between the śruti and smṛti texts, the Veda as a supratextual category, and methods of engaging the Veda.

Sruti and smṛti

To understand the mechanisms through which this expansion of the purview of the term Veda occurred, we need to examine more closely the distinction that is made in the Brahmanical Hindu tradition between the two categories of sacred texts: (1) śruti, “that which was heard,” and (2) smṛti, “that which was remembered.” The core śruti texts are the mantras—ṛcs, yajuses, sāmans, and atharvāṇgirases or atharvans—collected in the Vedic Saṃhitās. The domain of śruti was subsequently extended to include not only the Saṃ hitās but also the Brāhmaṇas, Āraṇyakas, and Upanishads. While the domain of śruti is in principle circumscribed, smṛti is a dynamic, open-ended category that includes the epics, Puranas, and Dharmashastras (ca. first to eighth centuries CE), and the Brahmanical legal codes, along with a variety of other texts that have been incorporated within this ever-expanding category in accordance with the needs of different periods and groups.

The primary criterion for distinguishing between the śruti and smṛti texts is generally characterized by both Indian and Western scholars as an ontological distinction between “revelation” and “tradition.” śruti texts—Saṃhitās, Brāhmaṇas, Āranyakas, and Upanishads—are traditionally understood to have been directly cognized—“seen” and “heard”—by inspired “seers” (ṛṣis) at the beginning of each cycle of creation. Among the orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy, the formal schools of Vedic exegesis, Pūrva-Mīmāṃsā and Vedānta, maintain that the śruti, or Vedic, texts are eternal (nitya), infinite (ananta), and uncreated (apauruṣseya)—not derived from any personal agent, whether human or divine—whereas the Nyāya, Vaiśeṣika, and Yoga schools view the Vedic texts as the work of God. All other sacred texts are relegated to a secondary status as smṛti, for they are held to have been composed by authors and are therefore designated as “that which was remembered” rather than “that which was heard.” On the basis of this criterion, the epics and Puranas are classified in the Brahmanical canon as smṛti texts, even though they may seek to identify themselves with śruti by claiming the status of the “fifth Veda.”

In attempting to assimilate themselves to the Veda, the epics and Puranas exemplify a well-documented phenomenon in Indian history where by any Hindu text or teaching seeking to legitimate its authority had to do so with reference to the Veda. The legitimating function of the Veda within Hindu traditions derives from its role as a transcendent source of authority. The core śruti texts, the Vedic mantras, are represented in the cosmogonic and cosmological speculations of Vedic and post-Vedic texts as eternal, transcendent knowledge that exists perpetually as the source and plan of the cosmos. The Vedic seers are portrayed as having stationed their awareness on the transcendent level where they “saw” and “heard” the primordial vibrations of pure knowledge manifesting as the fundamental rhythms of creation. They subsequently expressed on the gross level of speech that which they cognized on the transcendent level, and in this way the mantras assumed a concrete form on earth as recited texts. The Vedic mantras are thus granted the status of transcendent knowledge. Any subsequent sacred text can participate in that status only by assimilating itself to the Vedic mantras through a variety of strategies, including claiming to form part of śruti, the original cognitions of the seers, in the case of the Brāhmaṇas, Āraṇyakas, and Upanishads; claiming the status of the “fifth Veda,” in the case of the epics and Puranas; establishing a genealogy that directly links the text's teachings to the Veda or to some form of divine revelation, in the case of Dharmashastras such as the Manu-smṛti; claiming that the text's teachings derive from lost Vedic texts, a claim that could potentially apply to all smṛti texts; or otherwise conforming to the model of the Veda. Through such strategies, the term Veda is extended beyond the circumscribed boundaries of the Vedic mantras and, through a process of “vedacization,” comes to include within its purview not only an expanded array of śruti texts but also potentially all smṛti texts and teachings that are promulgated by Brahmanical authorities.

Such strategies, including a variety of other modes of assimilation, have been used not only by exponents of the Brahmanical hierarchy but also by non-Brahmanical Hindu groups to invest their sacred texts with the transcendent authority of the Veda. The domain of Veda is thereby expanded beyond the Brahmanical Sanskritic canon of śruti and smṛti texts to include texts derived from non-Brahmanical origins, including a variety of vernacular texts that are authoritative for particular bhakti (devotional) communities. For example, the Tiruvāymoḻi of the poet Nammāḻvār (ca. ninth century CE)—the collection of Tamil hymns composed by one of the most acclaimed of the South Indian Tamil Vaishnavas known as the Āḻvārs—is said to represent the four Vedic Saṃhitās and isdesignated as the “Dravidian Veda” or “Tamil Veda.” The Rāmcaritmānas of the poet Tulsīdās (ca. 16th century CE), a Hindi version of the Ramayana popular throughout North India, has been ascribed a similar status as the “fifth Veda” or “Hindi Veda.” Even scriptures derived from non-Hindu traditions have at times been identified with the Veda. For example, in South India, certain Tamil Christians deem the Bible to be the “true Veda,” whereas Tamil Muslims invest the Qur'an with an equivalent status. While some groups have thus sought to legitimate their texts through assimilating them to the Veda, certain bhakti and tantric movements have responded to the Veda by rejecting or subverting its authority. Whether the Veda is revered or rejected, appropriated or subverted, it remains a symbol invested with authoritative power that must be contended with by all those who wish to legitimate their teachings in the Hindu religious landscape.

Veda Beyond Texts

The Veda serves as a powerful and enduring symbol because it transcends the confines of textuality that limit the term to a circumscribed body of texts and comes to represent the totality of knowledge— not the ordinary knowledge derived through the powers of human observation and reasoning but the transcendent, infinite knowledge that is held to be the essence of ultimate reality and the source and foundation of creation. This knowledge is said to have been cognized by the Vedic seers and preserved by them and their Brahmanical descendants in the form of orally transmitted texts; but in the cosmogonic and cosmological speculations of Vedic and post-Vedic texts, the corpus of Vedic mantras preserved by the Brahmanical lineages is represented as only a limited manifestation of the unlimited, eternal reality of Veda. Among the network of representations associated with Veda, four complexes persist through the various strata of literature. 1. The Veda is described as the essence of Brahman, the ultimate reality, and is at times designated more specifically as śabdabrahman— Brahman embodied in the Word.2. The Veda as the totality of knowledge is also at times identified with the creator principle as the immediate source of creation.3. The Vedas (plural) are depicted as the archetypal plan of creation containing the primordial expressions of speech that the Creator utters to manifest the material realm of forms.4. The Vedas in their mundane transmitted form are the mantra collections, or Saṃhitās, of the Ṛg-Veda, Yajur-Veda, Sāma-Veda, and Atharva-Veda that are recited by human beings on earth as part of the Vedic sacrificial rites.

Engaging the Veda

The Vedic Sam. hitas, the core śruti texts, have been preserved in an unbroken chain of oral transmis sion (sampradaya) for more than 3,000 years. The preservation of the Vedic recitative tradition, along with the performance of the Vedic sacrificial rituals, in which recitation of the Vedic mantras assumes a central role, has remained the exclusive prerogative of male Brahman priests from the Vedic period to the present time. While the tradition of recitative transmission is restricted to the Brahman class, the male members of the other two “twice-born” social classes (varnas), Kshatriyas (rulers and warriors) and vaiśyas (merchants, agriculturalists, and artisans), have traditionally been expected to undertake a limited period of Vedic study. However, Brahmanical ideology provides no paradigm of Vedic study and practice for the larger community who are excluded from the ranks of the twice-born—in particular, women, śūdras (servants), and “outcastes,” who are beyond the pale of the varna system. Indeed, women and śūdras are forbidden in the Dharmashastras from even hearing the Vedic mantras recited, let alone reciting them. Although these marginalized groups have thus been excluded from direct access to the core śruti texts, they seek to participate in the eternal reality of Veda through engaging certain sm.rti texts that are ascribed the status of the “fifth Veda,” such as the epics and Puranas. In contrast to the highly circumscribed Vedic Saṃhitās, these popular devotional texts—both in their original Sanskrit versions and in their multiple vernacular retellings—are intended to inspire and edify the general populace and thus provide an alternative means for women, śūdras, and others at the bottom of the social hierarchy to encounter the transcendent power of Veda.

See also

Brahmanical Hinduism, Hinduism, India, Scripture

Further Readings
  • Coburn, T. B. “Scripture” in India: Towards a typology of the Word in Hindu life. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 52 ((3),) : , .
  • Heesterman, J. C. (1978). Veda and dharma. In O'Flaherty, W. D. & Derrett, J. D. M. (Eds.), The concept of duty in South Asia (pp. 80-95). New Delhi, India: Vikas.
  • Holdrege, B. A. (1996). Veda and Torah: Transcending the textuality of scripture. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • Mehta, J. L. (1984). The Hindu tradition: The Vedic root. In Whaling, F. (Ed.), The world's religious traditions: Current perspectives in religious studies. Essays in honour of Wilfred Cantwell Smith (pp. 33-54). Edinburgh, UK: T. & T. Clark.
  • Patton, L. L. (Ed.). (1994). Authority, anxiety, and canon: Essays in Vedic interpretation. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • Patton, L. L. (2004). Veda and Upanishads. In Mittal, S. & Thursby, G. (Eds.), The Hindu world (pp. 37-51). New York: Routledge.
  • Renou, L. (1965). The destiny of the Veda in India (Chanana, D. R., Trans.). New Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass.
  • Smith, B. K. (1989). Making connections: Hinduism and Vedism. In Reflections on resemblance, ritual, and religion (chap. 1, pp. 3-29). New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Holdrege, Barbara A.
    SAGE Publications, Inc.

    Related Articles

    Full text Article Vedas
    World Mythology: Handbook of Hindu Mythology

    The Scripture Veda means “knowledge,” but specifically refers to the eternal wisdom of the four collections of hymns, sacrificial rituals,...

    Full text Article Vedas
    Philip's Encyclopedia

    Ancient and most sacred writings of Hinduism . They consist of series of hymns and formulaic chants that constituted a Hindu liturgy . There...

    Full text Article The Ancient Vedas
    Ayurveda: A Comprehensive Guide to Traditional Indian Medicine for the West

    The ancient Vedas or cannons of wisdom constituted the foundation of ancient Indian culture and a way of life. Modern Indology is replete with...

    See more from Credo