Considered as the earliest literary records of the Indo-Aryan Civilization, the Vedas composed in Vedic Sanskrit are believed to be the oldest Scriptures in the Hindu dharma. The Vedas are the large body of vast knowledge and text; the religious and spiritual teachings of which encompasses the all aspects of life. The Vedas (word of Sanskrit origin, translating to ‘Knowledge’), as the records point out to be originated in the Indian Sub-continent and its origin dates back to 1600 BC; the Rig Veda, the oldest of all the Vedas is said to be authored in and around 1600 BC.
However, no definite date can be ascribed to the composition of the Vedas as the generational descend of the texts in Vedic periods was by literary oral tradition, which was then a precise and elaborate technique. The first of the written Vedas date to 1st millennium BCE, though the surviving ones now date only to somewhere in between 11th and 14th century mostly due to the ephemeral nature of the manuscript materials; the birch barks or palm leaves.
The tales tell, humans did not compose the revered compositions of the Vedas, but that God taught the Vedic hymns to the sages, who then handed them down through generations by word of mouth. Also the followers of the Hindu dharma regard the Vedas as apauruṣeya; meaning not of a man or impersonal and according according to some traditions in Hindu dharma such as the Vedanta and Mimamsa schools of philosophy the Vedas are considered as svatah pramana (In Sanskrit, meaning “self-evident means of knowledge”). Some school of thoughts even assert that the Vedas as of eternal creation, mainly in the Mimasa tradition. In the Mahabharata, the Hindu epic; the creation of Vedas is credited to Brahma, the Supreme creator. However the Vedic hymns themselves assert that they were skillfully created by Rishis (sages), after inspired creativity.
There are four Vedas: the Rigveda, the Yajurveda, the Samaveda and the Atharvaveda and all of them together are attributed to as ‘Chaturveda’. The Rig Veda serves as the principal one and all three but the Arthaveda agree with one another in form, language and content.
Each Veda has been subclassified into four major text types – The Samhitas, most ancient layer of text in the Vedas, consisting of mantras, hymns, prayers,and benedictions which has in literary terms put together or joined the other three texts; the Aranyakas which constitue the philosophy behind ritual sacrifice, the Brahmanas which inturn has the commentary of the ancient sacred rituals and the Upasanas, the one that focuses on worship.
The Rig Veda
The Rig Veda, the oldest vedic text is the collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns organised into ten books (Sanskrit: mandalas).The hymns which are dedicated to Rigvedic deities. The books were composed by poets from different priestly groups over a period of several centuries and is structured based on clear principles – the Veda begins with a small book addressed to Agni, Indra, and other gods and gradually shift from praise of deities in early books to latter ones such as Nasadiya Sukta with questions such as, “what is the origin of the universe?, “Do even gods know the answer?” and other metaphysical issues all of them arranged in hymns. It is often regarded to as ‘book of mantras’ and well illustrates the Vedic history.
The Sama Veda
The SamaVeda, also ‘the book of Songs’ consists of stanzas, taken almost entirely from the Rig Veda and has two major parts; the first part includes four melody collections (gāna; as of Sanskrit ) and the second part three verse books. Its purpose was liturgical, or to be sung ceremonially by the udgātṛ or “singer” priests. Just as in the Rig Veda, the early sections of Sama Veda typically begin with hymns to Agni and Indra but shift to the abstract.
The Yajur Veda
The Yajur Veda, ‘the book of rituals’ is also a liturgical collection but mainly consists of the prose mantras; meaning, It is a compilation of ritual offering formulas that were said by a priest while an individual performed ritual actions. A popularly performed one ritual is the Yajna fire, done before the sacred fire. The Yajur Veda has been the primary source of information about sacrifices during Vedic times and associated rituals and also served as a practical guidebook for the priests who execute sacrificial acts .
The Atharva Veda
The last of the Vedas, also called the ‘book of spell’ the Atharva Veda is completely different from the other three Vedas as a different spirit pervades this Veda. It provides information about the culture, the beliefs and aspirations and of everyday Vedic life. Religious traditions to address superstitious anxiety and spells cast by the outright demons also the herbs and medicines derived from them are mentioned. Many books of the Atharva Veda are also dedicated to philosophical speculations and on mystical powers. No wonder, its importance is next to the Rig Veda with regard to history and Sociology.