The Vedas

The most ancient sacred literature of Hinduism is called the Vedas. This collection of hymns, poems, and ceremonial formulas represent the beliefs of several Aryan tribes. Initially the Vedas were considered so sacred that they were only transmitted orally from one generation of brahmans to the next. The passages of the Vedas were eventually written in Sanskrit, we believe, near the end of the third century BC, and primarily consist of four collections called the Rig-Veda, the Sama-Veda, the Yajur-Veda, and the Atharva-Veda. Collectively, these are referred to as the Samhitas.

The first three Samhitas were used in the Vedic period by the priestly class as ritual handbooks. Containing 1,028 poetic hymns, the Rig-Veda was used by the hotri who called on the gods by reciting the hymns aloud. The hymns vary in style and length, and praise a pantheon of gods. Although Indra, the god of war and weather, is the most frequently mentioned, there appears to be no hierarchy. Agni, the god of fire, is the second most prominently mentioned deity. The Sama-Veda consisted of various portions taken from the Rig-Veda and were utilized by the udgatri chanters. The Yajur-Vedas was used by the adhvaryu priests. This work contains specific sacrificial formulas which were recited during that form of ceremony.

The final Veda, the Atharva-Veda, is attributed to a sage, or rishi, named Atharvan, and consists of a number of hymns and magical incantations. Some scholars believe that this scripture may have originated with the original pre-Aryan culture of indigenous peoples, and because it deviated form the other Vedas, it was not at first readily accepted. Eventually it too was adopted as a ritual handbook by the Brahmans, the highest class of priests.

Although the Rig-Veda is still considered the most important of these ancient texts, it was still never very popular. Much of this comes from the fact of its composition by and for a religious aristocracy. In contrast, the Atharva-Veda, compiled perhaps as late as 500 BC, frequently refers to many lesser functional gods considered useful in the daily lives and simple rituals of the ordinary Aryan that did not need the mediation of priests.