# 6.23: The Vedas

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### Key Points

• The Vedas, meaning “knowledge,” are the oldest texts of Hinduism.
• They are derived from the ancient Indo-Aryan culture of the Indian Subcontinent and began as an oral tradition that was passed down through generations before finally being written in Vedic Sanskrit between 1500 and 500 BCE (Before Common Era).
• The Vedas are structured in four different collections containing hymns, poems, prayers, and religious instruction.
• The Indian caste system is based on a fable from the Vedas about the sacrifice of the deity Purusha.

### Terms

#### Rig Veda

The oldest and most important of the four Vedas.

#### Caste System

An ancient social structure based upon one of the fables in the Vedas, castes persist in modern India.

#### Vedas

The oldest scriptures of Hinduism, originally passed down orally but then written in Vedic Sanskrit between 1500 and 500 BCE.

#### Hinduism

A major world religion that began on the Indian Subcontinent.

The Indo-Aryan Vedas remain the oldest scriptures of Hinduism, which is considered one of the oldest religions in the world. Vedic ritualism, a composite of ancient Indo-Aryan and Harappan culture, contributed to the deities and traditions of Hinduism over time. The Vedas are split into four major texts and contain hymns, mythological accounts, poems, prayers, and formulas considered sacred to the Vedic religion.

# Structure of the Vedas

Vedas, meaning “knowledge,” were written in Vedic Sanskrit between 1500 and 500 BCE in the northwestern region the Indian Subcontinent. The Vedas were transmitted orally during the course of numerous subsequent generations before finally being archived in written form. Not much is known about the authors of the Vedas, as the focus is placed on the ideas found in Vedic tradition rather than those who originated the ideas. The oldest of the texts is the Rig Veda, and while it is not possible to establish precise dates for each of the ancient texts, it is believed the collection was completed by the end of the 2nd millennium BCE (Before Common Era).

There are four Indo-Aryan Vedas: the Rig Veda contains hymns about their mythology; the Sama Veda consists mainly of hymns about religious rituals; the Yajur Veda contains instructions for religious rituals; and the Atharva Veda consists of spells against enemies, sorcerers, and diseases. (Depending on the source consulted, these are spelled, for example, either Rig Veda or Rigveda.)

Rigveda Manuscript. A manuscript copy of the Rigveda, the oldest and most important of the four Vedas of the Vedic religion, from the early 19th century.

The Rig Veda is the largest and considered the most important of the collection, containing 1,028 hymns divided into 10 books called mandalas. The verses of the Sam Veda are taken almost completely from the Rig Veda, but arranged differently so they may be chanted. The Yajur Veda is divided into the White and Black halves and contains prose commentaries on how religious and sacrifices should be performed. The Atharva Veda includes charms and magic incantations written in the style of folklore.

Each Veda was further divided in two sections: the Brahmanas, instructions for religious rituals, and the Samhitas, mantras or hymns in praise of various deities. Modern linguists consider the metrical hymns of the Rigveda Samhita, the most ancient layer of text in the Vedas, to have been composed by many authors over several centuries of oral tradition.

Although the focus of the Vedas is on the message rather than the messengers, such as Buddha or Jesus Christ in their respective religions, the Vedic religion still held gods in high regard.

# Vedic Religion

The Aryan pantheon of gods is described in great detail in the Rig Veda. However, the religious practices and deities are not uniformly consistent in these sacred texts, probably because the Aryans themselves were not a homogenous group. While spreading through the Indian Subcontinent, it is probable that their initial religious beliefs and practices were shaped by the absorption of local religious traditions.

According to the hymns of the Rig Veda, the most important deities were Agni, the god of Fire, intermediary between the gods and humans; Indra, the god of Heavens and War, protector of the Aryans against their enemies; Surya, the Sun god; Vayu, the god of Wind; and Prthivi, the goddess of Earth.

Agni, God of Fire. Agni, the Indian God of Fire from the ancient Vedic religion, shown riding a ram.

# Vedas and Castes

The Caste System, or groups based on birth or employment status, has been part of the social fabric of the Indian Subcontinent since ancient times. The castes are thought to have derived from a hymn found in the Vedas to the deity Purusha, who is believed to have been sacrificed by the other gods. Afterward Purusha’s mind became the Moon, his eyes became the Sun, his head the Sky, and his feet the Earth.

The passage describing the classes of people derived from the sacrifice of Purusha is the first indication of a caste system. The Brahmins, or priests, came from Purusha’s mouth; the Kshatriyas, or warrior rulers, came from Purusha’s arms; the Vaishyas, or commoners such as landowners and merchants, came from Purusha’s thighs; and the Shudras, or laborers and servants, came from Purusha’s feet.

Today the castes still exist in the form of varna, or class system, based on the original four castes described in the Vedas. A fifth group known as Dalits, historically excluded from the varna system, are ostracized and called untouchables. The caste system as it exists today is thought to be a product of developments following the collapse of British colonial rule in India. The system is frowned upon by many people in Indian society and was a focus of social justice campaigns during the 20th century by prominent progressive activists such as B. R. Ambedkar, an architect of the Indian Constitution, and Mahatma Gandhi, the revered leader of the nonviolent Indian independence movement.

Gandhi at Madras, 1933. Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi visits Madras, now Chennai, on a tour of India in 1933. During his appearances Gandhi frequently spoke out against the discrimination of the Indian caste system.