The oldest literature in the world…
Well, not quite. The Vedas are however some of the oldest texts to have survived as living literature till our time.
In India these texts have the status of the Bible – though there is more of them, and the service paid to them is perhaps lip service… Anyhow, without knowing a bit about these, you can’t really know about Hinduism.
The Veda are the literature of the Brahman elite in India. They were composed between 2000 BC and 500BC (roughly, no dates are clear when it comes to ancient India). The oldest strands were probably composed in Central Eurasia by the Aryan peoples who migrated into Northern India and became the Brahmans, Kshatriyas (kings, warriors and leaders) and Vaishyas (merchants). There is some evidence that these groups were not that rigidly divided at that time.
Oral Literature – written down
Most ancient people had an oral literature. The unique thing about the Vedas is that they were memorized to the letter, so that while they were transmitted orally long before they were written down (around 300 AD), experts agree that they were not tampered with.
In fact: most of the people transmitting the texts don’t have a clue what they are saying: they are just experts at having memorized the sound. I’m using present tense for a reason here: there are still Brahmins who learn these texts by heart the traditional way.
Vedic Sanskrit: Ancient Sanskrit
The Vedas were composed in an ancient form of Sanskrit, an Indo-European language. Scholars agree this is the oldest known literature in that language that significant portions survive of (the Zoroastrian Gatha’s are partly older, but the texts of that which survive can only be understood with the help of knowledge of Vedic Sanskrit).
The fact that Sanskrit is an Indo European language means that it is in some ways easier to learn than say modern Chinese or Japanese – for people who grew up learning a Western European language like English, German or French (or in my case Dutch).
It’s still pretty hard though. Sanskrit has 8 cases where modern German only has 4. I did learn Sanskrit, but a more modern version called ‘classical Sanskrit’ which is only 2000 years old.
The different Veda
There are 5 texts that are generally considered the Vedic texts.
- The Rig Veda is the oldest. It’s also the most sacred. It contains hymns to the ancient Vedic Gods.
- The Sama Veda is a collection of formula or mantra to be sung by a udgatar or chanting priest.
- The Yayur Veda (there is a Black and a White one) are Veda’s to be sung by the adhvaryu or officiating priest
- The Atharva Veda is also reasonably old. It contains stories, charms, predictions and hymns.
Generally people who are interested in Hinduism only read the Rig Veda. That’s already such a large text that to read the other veda is just too much.
Gods in the Veda
Ancient Hindu religious beliefs
The 1028 hymns in the Rig Veda are each dedicated to a specific deity. I’ll list just the main ones. The present Hindus have an uncounted number of gods to worship. Only Indra has survived to be of any importance in their mythology.
289 (about a fourth) of the Rig Vedic hymns is dedicated to one God: Indra. Indra slays the dragon of drought Vritra as well as the smasher of the Vala stone that held Morning captive. In this way he liberated the rivers and daytime. Indra was, in other words, a most powerful God who was responsible for drinking water and sunlight. He is sometimes interpreted as related to the European thunder and storm gods Thor/Donner or Zeus/Jupiter.
Agni is close second with 218 hymns dedicated to him. He is the god of Fire and since fire sacrifice was central to the worship in the Rig Veda (and still in Zoroastrianism) it is not surprising he was sung to so often.
Soma is the famous ritual drink of the ancient Indo-aryans (as the authors of the Vedas are called). The drink was dedicated to Indra, so in a way the hymns dedicated to Soma are also tribute to Indra.
The first Hindu philosophy – religious views
Traditionally the Upanishads are seen as the end result of the Veda. In the Upanishad the Veda are interpreted in ways that signal the start of Hinduism in India.
Some of the Vedas available for you – Traditional Hindu literature
Like most Indian literature, the Veda’s are an enourmous amount of text. Most of it is only accessible to specialists who read the Sanskrit directly. The following are however some of the central ideas and texts available for lay people like you and me.
If you click through to Amazon for my primary recommendation: The Rig Veda (Penguin Classics), you will find that there is quite a controversy brewing there in the comments. While I realize that the study of Sanskrit and Indian religion is relatively new, and therefore there are a lot of questions still left, I don’t doubt that the translation given here is reasonable.