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An Introduction to The Vedas

Every religion, over centuries, has adopted a sacred text which

the followers have taken as the ‘Revealed Text’ as having
emanated from the Lord Supreme although such a text might
have come as commandments from the founder or prophet of
that religion. While followers of other religion have been able to
identify a single text as their revealed text, Hindus (the term, in
the absence of a better term, used for followers of Sanaatana
Dharma) are by and large confused as to the answer for such a
single text as their religious scripture or text. There is confusion
as to whether Ramaayana or Mahaabhaarata or other vedantic
texts are to be so referred. This confusion for Hindus is due to
the absence of a basic religious education pursued. There is no
confusion as to the fact that our religion is not just ritual, but
means Dharma. Dharma is which, when followed, will make us
happy and contended. In order to know what is meant by the
term Dharma we should refer to specific texts. These texts are
referred to as ‘Dharmapramaanaas’ or that which give true
knowledge of Dharma. The fourteen major texts that are known
as the ‘Vidyaasthaanaas’ speak about true Dharma as they
enshrine Knowledge and Wisdom.

Angaani Vedasschatwaaro meemaamsa nyaaya


Puraanam Dharmasaastramcha Vidyahyetaah


(Manu Smruti)

Puraana Nyaaya Meemaamsaa Dharma Saastraanga


Vedaahsthaanaanee Vidyaanaam Dharmasya cha chaturdasa

(Yaagnyavalkya Smruti)

This means : four Vedas (Rig, Yajur, Saama and Atharva); the six
auxiliaries to Vedas (Shad Vedaangaas, viz., ‘Siksha’ or euphony
and pronunciation; ‘Vyaakarnaa’ or grammar; ‘Chandas’ or
meter; ‘Niruktha’ or etymology; ‘Jyotisha’ or astronomy; ‘Kalpa’
or procedure), (and four supplements, Upaangaas, viz.,)
‘Meemaamsa’ or interpretation of Vedic texts; ‘Nyaaya’ or logic;
‘Puraana’ or mythology and ‘Dharma Saastraas’ which contain
the codes of conduct make up the fourteen seats of Wisdom
and Knowledge. The Sanskrit word Vidya, Vidwaan etc. originate
from the root ‘Vid’. The term Veda has the same root. You may
appreciate that the English words Wit and Wisdom have all come
from the same root! Simplistically put, Veda means ‘ Book of
Knowledge’. These texts not only give Wisdom but also the
ultimate Knowledge and hence are known as
‘Dharmasthaanaas’. There are four more texts of wisdom which
are just Vidyaasthaanas and not Dharmasthaanas; Ayurvedam
(about health & medicine), Arthasaastram
(economics/statecraft),Dhanurvedam (on archery) and
Gaandharvavedam ( on fine arts). These four are called
‘Upavedas’ that help protect the human physique and provide
the basis for non-spiritual pleasure. These are necessary for our
practical living as opposed to the fourteen Dharmasthaanaas
that help our spiritual evolution to ultimate self-realization. Thus,
these eighteen basic texts form the core of our texts.

Many of us might have heard the reference to Hinduism as

‘Vedic religion’ - a religion which formed out of Vedas and which
derives all its tenets from Vedas. It is mind boggling to attempt
to write a brief synopsis on Vedas as it defies imagination -
where to begin and what to narrate within a few pages. The
topic, even the introduction, is so expansive that it is difficult to
lay down the preliminary details in a few hundred sentences.
The endeavor here is to briefly touch upon the fourteen
Dharmasthaanas and delve mainly on the four Vedas and take
up the (six) Angaas and (four) Upaangaas at a later date.
The Vedas are called Anaadi, i.e., without a beginning in terms of
time. That is to say, anything previous to it or older than it did
not exist. This means it has existed at all times - even before the
creation of the Cosmos. How can the rational proof-demanding
society accept this contention. Authorship is a pre-requisite of
any text and ordinary logic refuses to support the claim that a
text could have no author. However, the fact remains that the
Universe, both the Phenomenal and the Noumenal, extends far
beyond ‘Space’ and ‘Time’, the two basic devices and tools used
by us to measure any phenomenon. Only some modes of this
Universe fall within space and time and are apprehended as
physical universe by our conditioned and limited consciousness.
We do not and cannot see the limitless ocean, but can see only
the waves, wave fronts and froth in it. This is a topic in itself
and could consume reams of paper even to delineate the
convincing arguments that HH Sri Paramaachaarya (68th pontiff
of Kaanchi Kaamakoti Sankara Peetham, a Tapasvin of the
highest spiritual order (known as ‘ God who walked amidst us)
had advanced in his lecturers. The theory of vibrations, sound
and creation, inadequacy of research and researchers in rushing
to assign an Age to Vedas by reference to Astronomy have all
been elaborately explained by the greatest legendary Sage. This
can be taken as a specific topic another time. Instead of totally
avoiding the subject here, it would suffice to point to two
important references on the permanence of Vedas:

Vidyaaranya who wrote the Veda Bhaashya ( commentary)

regarded his Guru as Iswara or God Himself and reiterates the
statement contained in Brihadhaaranyaka Upanishad (2.4.10)
that Rig,Yajur, Saama and Atharva Veda forms are Iswara’s
breath ‘Nishwasitham’ (exhalation of breath).

Lord Krishna, the Gitaachaarya says in the Gita ( Ch. XV.15 ),

Vedaischa Sarvairahameva Vedyah - “ I am the person who is to
be known by all the Vedas ”. He never, however, calls himself as
one who made the Vedas but refers to himself as the subject of
all Vedanta - Vedaantakrit - and not as Vedakrit. He calls himself
as Vedavit - one who knows all Vedas. Iswara and the Vedas
have co-existed in His absolute and conceptual state as
described in the Vedanta, before He made himself and the end
product of Evolution, even before Creation.

It has to be understood that the Vedas are vast and what we

discuss today as Vedas is limited in extent. Vedas themselves
clearly state that Vedas are verily endless - ‘Anantaa vai Vedah’.
Only a small portion of the limitless Vedas got ‘revealed’ to the
venerable Rishis as ‘vibrations’.

The four Vedas, Rig, Yajur, Saama and Atharva, which are
believed to be vibrations in space absorbed by blessed Rishis
(seers) and revealed to the mankind were synthesized more
than 5,000 years ago, probably, at the beginning of this (Kali)
Yuga, by Bhagawan Veda Vyaasa and consisted of 1,131
Saakhaas (recensions or branches), 21 in Rik, 101 in Yajus, 1000
in Saama and 9 in Atharva. They were preserved in the
Parampara (line) of Rishis, viz., Paila, Vaishampaayana, Jaimini
and Sumanthu, by oral tradition, from father to son and guru
(teacher) to sishya (disciple). Of late, the notion that education
other than Vedic studies alone would ensure a livelihood, has led
to many in the line taking to secular studies, resulting in many
Vedic Saakhaas becoming unavailable for mortals today. Even
amidst the available Vedic scholars who are very few in number,
those who can chant from memory could be counted on one’s
fingers. As of date, only 10 recensions are available, and thanks
to the efforts of Achaaryaas from the three major schools of our
philosophy (Advaita, Vishishtaadvaita and Dvaita ) particularly to
Kanchi Paramachaaryaa (who lived 99 years amidst us and
revered by one and all as the ‘incarnation’ of Iswara), and a few
organizations which have been attempting to keep the spirit for
pursuit and learning of Vedas alive.
Mantras, are revelations to the Great seers ( Rishis) who
captured the vibrations of Vedas as such. They are the Rishis to
whom the Mantras are said to belong. They possessed the
Divine ear to hear those mantras. Yoga Saastra says that, if the
spatial expanse in the skies and the space, which exists in a
microform in the mind of the listener, are unified, all the
otherwise inaudible and suspended sounds in space will become
audible to us. Those who feel in unison with all objects in
creation can alone feel the sound. ‘Rationalists’ should have no
difficulty in admitting at least a part of this explanation as many
sounds (such as low and high frequency conversations of various
living beings) which were, hitherto, considered inaudible to
human ears, are now made audible with special scientific
assistance. Suffice to say that Rishis brought forth the mantras
for the benefit of the world and did not create them. No praise is
too high for the Rishis who have blessed us with the mantras
that were beyond our grasp.

By definition, Mantra means that by repeatedly meditating upon

which one is saved - Mananaath thraayathe’ ithi mantrah. If
one is to realize the correct import of, succeed with and get the
fullest benefit from the Mantras, there is a prescribed method for
chanting them. The below mentioned (six) methods of recitation
are pronounced to be incorrect and should be avoided.

Geetee Seeghree Sirah kampee thathaa likhita paathakah

Anarthajnah alpakantascha Shadaitay pathakaadhamaah

(Siksha Saashtra )

Geetee is one who chants in a singsong fashion. Though

Saamaveda is musically recited, it can be recited only in the
approved musical way and not as one pleases. Further, since the
sound and its variations have potency, recitation other than in
the proper swara is not only improper but also harmful.
Seegree is one who chants in a quick tempo and ends the
recitation quickly. The intonation should be adhered to the time
limits prescribed for uttering each word-sound. Sirahkampee is
one who shakes and nods his head needlessly while chanting.

Likhitapaathakah is one reads from the written script. Vedas

are otherwise known as ‘Sruti’ and should be learnt by ear
from the oral chanting by a competent teacher and committed
to memory in the proper manner.

Anarthajnah means one who does not understand the


Alpakantha is one who recites in a feeble voice. In order that

the sound vibrations have good effect, the sounds should be
properly audible and not mumbled.

The Vedic Tree and its Saakhaas

We saw earlier that ‘Endless are the Vedas’ , but what is

available to us today are just 10 recensions or Vedic Saakhaas
(branches). Although we refer to Vedas as four in number, there
are different versions and differing methods of recitation of
these four. These are called paathaantharam or way of
recitation and each such school of recitation or recension is
called ‘ Saakha’. Each of these is a branch of the Vedic tree. In
each Saakha, there are three portions called Samhita,
Braahmana and Aaranyaka. This again is a classification.
When we speak of Veda adyayana, it is generally a reference to
the recitation of the Samhita portion as Samhitaas are the
foundation of a Saakha. Samhita means that which has been
collected and arranged. It brings out the purport of a Veda and
Samhitaas are mantras systematically arranged. We will see
about Braahmana and Aaranyaka after we briefly glance
through the contents of the four Vedas.
Rig Veda

The whole of the Rig Veda Samhita is in the form verses

( slokaas - stanzas) and it may be noted that Slokaa was earlier
known as ‘Rik’ or a ‘hymn’ in praise. Each Rik is a mantra and a
number of Riks constitute a ‘Sookta’. The Samhita portion of
Rig Veda contains 10,170 Riks grouped into 1028
Sooktaas and encompassed within 10 mandalas and 8
ashtakaas and these sooktaaas are in praise of all Devataas.
The marriage rites that are being followed today have originally
been created on the pattern of the marriage of Sooryaa’s
daughter, which is detailed in Rig Veda. The cognoscente extol
many portions in Rig Veda as masterpieces of poetic
composition. The action that Yajur Veda predicates and the
musical recitation that Saama Veda dictates emerge from the
basic Riks in Rig Veda. Rig Veda itself contains references
to Yajus and Saama Vedas in many places. Purusha Sooktaa,
which appears in tenth mandala, nineteenth hymn of Rig Veda,
refers to the other Vedas as well. This should ,therefore, be able
to clarify the confusion of the modern researchers who are keen
in assigning to Rig Veda a date earlier than Yajur Veda , Saama
Veda etc. As per our Saastraas, all the Vedas co-existed with the
Paramapurusha (Supreme Lord) at the beginning of all Creation.
Aitareya Upanishad that deals with the turmoil of a Jeeva (soul)
and which teaches the method to cut away from the cycle of
Births and Deaths and emphasizes that ‘the Thought
(Prajnaana) itself is the Brahman’ appears at the end of the
Aitareya Aaranyaka of Rig Veda.

Yajur Veda

The words Yajus and Yaj are derived from the root ‘yaj’, which
means worship. Just as the word ‘Rig’ itself means a Hymn in
praise, the word ‘ Yajus’ connotes spelling out the ritualistic
procedure of the Yagna (sacrificial worship). Yajur Veda gives the
mantras in Rig Veda appearing in the form of hymns a practical
shape in the form of Yajna. In addition to referring to many
mantras in hymn form from Rig Veda, Yajur Veda describes in
prose the procedural details for the performance of different
Yagnas. Although Yajur Veda has several branches (Saakhaas),
as in the other Vedas, it has two main branches with numerous
recensions in each branch. Those are called Sukla Yajur Veda
and Krishna Yajur Veda. As Rishi Yaajnavalkya is believed to
have learnt this Samhita from Sun God (Vaajasani), this came to
be known as Vaajasaneyi Samhita. The earlier version of the
Yajur Veda taught by Rishi Vaisampaayana came to be called as
Krishna Yajur Veda. The glory of Yajur Veda lies in its clear
presentations of Vedic Karma or Rituals. The Taittareeya Samhita
in Krishna Yajur Veda makes Asvamedha Yajnaas such as Darsa
Poornamasa, Somayaaga, Vaajapeya, and Raajasooya, known to
the world in all its grandeur of procedural details. Yajur Veda also
contains rare hymns of praise which are not contained in Rig
Veda, such as the Sri Rudram. Although five Sooktaas called ‘
Pancha Rudram’, find a place in Rig Veda, Sri Rudram of today
refers only to that which is contained in Yajur Veda. Over a
period of time, a vast majority have come to follow the Yajur
Veda. While Sukla Yajur is the one recension mostly followed in
Northern India, Krishna Yajur is prevalent school in South India.
Again, the Purusha Sookta of today generally refers to the
version that appears in Yajur Veda although it originally
belonged to Rig Veda. The three fold benefits of Yajna,
performance of a Yajna without desiring any results or reward as
stated in Bhagavad Gita , and attaining total Bliss (Aananda)
are not taken up for discussion now due to space constraints.
While Easaavaasya Upanishad comes from the Samhita portion
of Sukla Yajur Veda, Brahadaaranyaka Upanishad, the biggest of
all Upanishads appears a whole Aaranyaka of Sukla Yajus.
Taittareeya Upanishad which is the most widely studied of the
ten Upanishads and which contains mantras for most of the
rituals (Karmaanushtaana) appears in the Aaaranyaka portion of
Krishna Yajur Veda.

Saama Veda
‘Saama’ means to bring peace to the minds or ‘ Shaanti’. Many
of the Riks or mantras of Rig-Veda are set to music in melodious
hymns in Saama Veda with lengthened notes. Saama Gaana can
be said to be the basis and source of the Sapta Swara (seven
notes) concept fundamental to Indian Music systems. Saama
Gaana or singing of the hymns as per rules of Saama Veda
propitiates all Devataas. In Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna
Bhagavaan says ‘ Amongst Vedas, I am Saama Veda’. What
appears in the Chaandogya Braahmana of Saama Veda is
Chaandogya Upanishad. ‘Chaandoga’ means one who sings the
Saama Gaana. Chaandogya Upanishad mantras constitute the
supreme authority (pramaana) for the Brahma Sutra of Veda
Vyaasa. Kenopanishad also called as Talavakaara Upanishad as
it appears in Talavakaara Brahmana of the Jaimini Saakha of
Saama Veda.

Atharva Veda

Atharva means a purohit (priest). This Rishi, called Atharvan

brought the mantras in the Atharva Veda to the world. The
various types of mantras contained in this Veda are designed to
ward off evil and destroy the enemies. These mantras are in
prose as well as in verses. Some of the mantras found in this
Veda pertain to Devatas not mentioned in the other Vedas. The
hymn, which extols the wonder of Creation called the ‘Prithvi
Sooktam’, appears in Atharva Veda. Among the ten major
Upanishads, ‘Prasna, Mundaka and Maandukya’ are from this
Veda. The importance of this Veda can be judged from the well
known saying, for a Mumukshu (or seeker after Truth),
Maandukya Upanishad alone can ensure Moksha (Liberation).

The Gaayatri to which the young Brahmacharins are initiated

during Upanayana is called Tripaada Gaayatri, i.e. three legged.
It is so called since it has three limbs. Each limb is the essence
of one Veda. Atharva Veda has a Gaayatri of its own. Hence the
conventional rule to get initiated into Atharva Gaayatri before
learning Atharva Veda.
There are very few who are today learned in the Atharva Veda
Saakha that were once very popular in Northern India. There is,
of course, no pure Atharva Vedin prevalent in South India today.
Atharva Vedins are found in small numbers in Gujarat, Orissa
and Nepal.

Braahmana and Aaranyaka

The main text of a Veda, which we so far discussed, is its

Samhita portion. Each Veda has two other parts called
Braahmana and Aaranyaka. Braahmana lists what Vedic rituals
and how they are to be performed. The Braahmanas serve the
purpose of a guidebook explaining each word for understanding
to ensure proper use of the mantra. Aaranyaka is derived from
Aranya (forest). While Samhita or Braahmana do not advocate
the observer to seek the solitude of the forest, the next step
after obtaining mental purity by observances of Karma is
seeking solitude for further concentration and meditation. Thus,
Aaaranyaka portions of the Vedas are meant to explain the inner
meaning, the doctrine, contained in the Samhitas as mantras
and in the Braahmanas as Karmas. The Brihadhaaranyaka
Upanishad, which is a combination of Aaranyaka and Upanishad
explains Aswamedha Yajna on such a note of analytical


This is a vast subject by itself. I have already mentioned about

the ten Upanishads while introducing the four Vedas. However,
before I conclude the introduction on Vedas, I must briefly touch
upon this quintessence of Vedas.

If Samhita is likened to a foundation of a major branch, the

Braahmanas are its flowers, the Aaranyakas are its fruits in an
unripened state and the Upanishads are the ripe fruits
from the Veda Vriksham (Vedic Tree). Although Upanishads
contain references to various disciplines of learning, sacrificial
worship etc., the main theme of all Upanishads is a
philosophical inquiry dealing with that supreme state of mind
with all shackles destroyed. On this basis, the Vedas are divided
into two divisions of pursuits - one dealing with rituals/action
called Karma Kaanda and the other dealing with Knowledge
called Jnaana Kaanda. These are also referred to as Poorva
Mimaamsa and Uttara Mimaamsa. While Maharishi Jaimini
concluded Karma Kaanda to be the fruit of Vedic philosophy,
Sage Veda Vyaasa concluded that Jnaana Kaanda was the
quintessence of the Vedas and these he stated in the form of
aphorisms called Brahma Sutra.

Upa-ni-shada means ‘ to sit by the side’. What was taught by

making the disciple sit by the side of the teacher is the
Upanishads. It is also taken to mean ‘ that which helps you reach
the side of or near “Brahmam”. The Upanishads permit dual
interpretation as above just as ‘Upanayana’ is interpreted both
as ‘ leading to the Guru’ and ‘leading to the Paramaatma’.
Upanishad is not for those who are not mentally conditioned to
absorb the teachings. Upanishads themselves say, when
propounding subtle Truths, “ This is Upanishad. This is
Upanishad.”. That which is latent in the Vedas is called Rahasya
or secret. The Upanishads are such confidential personalized
instructions to those fit to receive them.

Adi Sankaraachaarya selected ten of the Upanishads, popularly

known as Dasopanishads and wrote Bhaashya or commentary
on them. He highlighted the non-dualist (Advaita) doctrine
propounded in them. Ramaanujaacharya and Madhvaachaarya,
who came later, also wrote Bhaashyas on these very ten
Upanishads but each of them emphasized their respective
doctrines, viz., Visishta-Advaita (qualified non-dualism) and
Dvaita (Dualism). Adi Sankara’s commentary is in the following
order of texts.
Eaasa Kena Kathaa Prasna Munda Maandukya Taithari

Aitareyam cha Chaandogyam Brahadhaaranyakam Dasa

The word Veda means ‘ to know’. The Upanishads define Aatma

as that by knowing which all things will have become known.
The goal of the Vedas is to make known that Aatma. Whether it
is the Karma, which comes in the beginning, or knowledge
(Jnaana) which comes at the end, the Central theme is to know
the Iswara - Brahman - Aatma.


The unusual characteristics of the Vedas are: 1) they are

without a beginning (Anaadi) , (2) they have no human
authorship (apourusheya), and (3) they are at the root of all
creation. The greatness of Vedas are something more than
these. The sound while chanting them activates our nerve
centers and also affects the atmosphere, resulting in individual
as well as collective well being of the world. Collective well being
extends beyond humanity and encompasses the well being of
animals and plants as well. Latest research in the field of music
has found that mere delineation of ragas or musical notes help
cure diseases and help promote growth of vegetation and high
yields of fruits and vegetables. The outstanding feature of the
Vedas, therefore, lies in the fact that the sound of the mantras
by itself when chanted, has a meaning, apart from the words
which are also full of meaning. Vedas contain injunctions for
ensuring the well being in this world and the world to come. It
guides the actions of a person from the moment of birth to the
moment of death and thereafter ensure salvation. It does not
stop at individual salvation. How should the society behave,
what are the duties of the common man, how should a country
be governed, what should be the conduct of men and women -
all these aspects have been presented in a codified form in the
Vedas. This is the prime reason why we should refer to our
religion as a ‘code of conduct’ - lacking in dogma - ‘ Sanaatana
Dharma’ and not as ‘Hinduism’ coined by the invaders and
which reference, unfortunately, has come to stay.

All the four Vedas , although differing in certain observances or

precepts or modes of recitations, have a common goal and that
is to ensure the well being of the Universe and to help every one
towards spiritual progress. The most admired feature of the
Vedas is that no Veda says, ‘this is the only way or this is the
only God’. All of them repeat that any good path followed with
Faith and Loyalty, irrespective of the Devata you worship or the
form or the method of worship, will lead the worshipper to the
True and Ultimate Goal. While every other religion in the world
says that its Doctrine alone is capable of leading the followers to
Heaven, The Vedas alone have such a unique Vision to say that
the same Truth can be realized in many ways by those pursuing
diverse routes. This is the uniqueness or greatness of