The Four Vedas

The earliest written document is the Rig Veda, a collection of 1,017 Sanskrit poems addressed to various gods, as well as three other collections (Samhitas) — the Sama, Yajur, and Atharva Vedas — a collection of hymns used in the ritual services, all written in archaic poetic texts.

The Rig Veda, also known as The Veda of Verses, is the first portion of the Vedas and consists of 1,028 hymns covering 10,600 stanzas of praise to the nature gods, particularly Agni — the fire god — and Indra — the warrior god.

The purpose of the Vedas was to teach people their dharma — their conduct and duty in the present life. The Vedas also serve a special purpose: They are used for sacrifices. These hymns are to be intoned with special tunes, and the pronunciations of the words must be accurate, since they are addressed to special gods thanking the deities and asking for material favors.

In the Vedic cosmology, the universe is divided into three parts — Earth, atmosphere, and heaven — and the gods are assigned to these parts. The gods mentioned in the Rig Veda are related to forces of nature: Varuna is related to the heavens; Usha is the goddess of dawn; and Surya is related to the sun. Indra is the most important of all atmospheric gods.

In later years, commentaries on these hymns, called Brahmanas, were written. Still later, in the sixth century B.C.E., mystical philosophical works were developed that differed from previous Brahmanas and Samhitas. These works are called Vedanta Upanishads. The Bhagavad Gita (a later addition to the Upanishads) and the Upanishads themselves form the basis for the sacred scriptures of Hinduism. The Vedas and Upanishads are the foremost scriptures in antiquity, both in authority and importance. Other major scriptures include the Tantras, the sectarian Agamas, the Puranas (legends), and the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana. The Bhagavad Gita, which comes later, is a treatise from the Mahabharata and is sometimes called a summary of the spiritual teachings of the Vedas.

One Aryan religious practice was to drink the juice of the soma, a deified plant. After Indra and Agni, this is the most important god in the Rig Veda. One verse about the soma reads: “I, of good understanding, have partaken of the sweet potion, the well-minded, the best finder of bliss, which all the gods and mortals, calling it ‘honey,’ seek.”

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