by Jyotsna Kamat
First Online: July 03, 2007
The four Vedas, Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Athrvaveda, form the fundamental basis of Hindu philosophy and religion. These are the earliest existing texts of mankind. These deal with the knowledge of the Creator, His Creation, and His Creatures. They have provided a national identity to Hindus through the ages. The Vedic mantras are recited on occasions, happy and sad. In spite of myriads of gods worshipped, the basic mantras, about installation, about various rituals, and for common welfare remain the same, throughout the country. The mantras are in archaic Sanskrit.
The word 'Veda' is derived form the root of Sanskrit word ‘vid' =to know (Vidya is eduaction). Hence veda means pure knowledge. In broader sense, Vedas mean acquiring of knowledge for right thinking, enlightenment and happiness. These basic requirements of human beings are expressed in Vedas in very short and cryptic words known as mantras. Mantras are revelations of visionaries and sages (rishis), expressed by them occasionally. These were learnt orally by the worthy disciples, and passed on to the following generations.
When put down on paper, these mantras and hymns (suktas) are in twenty thousand and odd in numbers. They are in metrical verses and recited in a particular form. Divided into four books of Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva Vedas, mantras pertain to all aspects of human activities.
There are 10589 mantras & hymns in Rigveda, 1975 in Yajurveda, 1225 in Samaveda, and 5997 in Atharvaveda. These vedic verses together are usually known as riks. The most ancient and important veda is Rigveda and is mainly knowledge-oriented.
Yajurveda is action oriented because it mainly deals with all rituals connected with yajnas (sacrifices) through which ancient Indians propitiated gods.
Samaveda is sum total of all the above Vedas put into practice.
Mantras which are metrical, originally meant pure thought or food for intellect.
Shruti is another name for four Vedas. As already stated, oral learning was order of the day and knowledge was acquired by shravana or attentive listening. (The root shru = to listen and shruti is imbibed knowledge acquired through careful listening)
The sacred knowledge, preserved in cryptic mantras or sentences is recited in a particular way with proper stress on correct word, which only reveals the right meaning. This is possible only through years of practice under a Guru, who himself would have acquired the knowledge through attentive listening, reciting and remembering from his Guru. Only parts Khandika of Vedas could be mastered over years of dedicated learning in the traditional chanting way.
The priestly class (the Purohits) are specially trained with mantras meant for occasions which help them with their profession. For bigger occasions of sacrifices, services of highly proficient priests are sought. Real vedic scholars are becoming rare.
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