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Vedic Literature: Ancient India

Vedic Literature Overview

  • Vedas: Large bodies of religious text composed in Vedic Sanskrit, originating in ancient India.
  • Form the oldest scriptures of Hinduism and the oldest layer of Sanskrit literature.
  • Passed on through verbal transmission, known as Shruti, emphasizing their sacred and eternal nature.
  • Comprises four Vedas: Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda, and Atharva Veda.
  • The mantra text of each Veda is referred to as Samhita.

Characteristics of Vedas:

  • Sacred Transmission: Vedas are considered Shruti, reflecting divine revelation and unquestionable truth.
  • Mantra Text: Each Veda’s content is organized in the form of Samhita, containing hymns, chants, and prayers.
  • Verbal Tradition: Transmission occurred through oral traditions, emphasizing memorization and recitation.

Vedic Sanskrit and Origin:

  • Vedas are composed in Vedic Sanskrit, a linguistic form specific to this ancient body of literature.
  • Originated in ancient India, reflecting the cultural and religious heritage of the region.

Four Vedas:

  1. Rig Veda: Contains 1028 hymns, classified into 10 mandalas.
  2. Sama Veda: Focuses on music, and Indian music is said to have originated from it.
  3. Yajur Veda: Deals with the ways to perform rituals and ceremonies.
  4. Atharva Veda: Contains spells and magical formulas, offering a diverse range of knowledge.

Types of Vedic Literature

I. Shruti Literature:

  • The term ‘Shruti’ translates to ‘to hear.’
  • Comprises sacred texts, including:
    • Vedas
    • Brahmanas
    • Aranyakas
    • Upanishads
  • Canonical in nature, representing revelation and unquestionable truth.
  • Considered eternal and forms the foundational scriptures of Hinduism.
  • Emphasizes divine knowledge received through oral transmission (Shruti).

II. Smriti Literature:

  • The term ‘Smriti’ means ‘to be remembered.’
  • Supplementary to Shruti Literature and may undergo changes over time.
  • Encompasses a diverse range of post-Vedic Classical Sanskrit literature, including:
    • Vedanga
    • Shad darsana
    • Puranas
    • Itihasa
    • Upveda
    • Tantras
    • Agamas
    • Upangas
  • Represents the collective wisdom, traditions, and teachings passed down through memory (Smriti).

Vedic Literature Categories:

I. Vedas and Samhitas:

  • Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda, and Atharva Veda.
  • Comprise the foundational texts of Vedic knowledge.
  • Each Veda has its respective Samhita, which contains hymns, rituals, and prayers.
  • Rig Veda is the oldest and consists of 1028 hymns classified into 10 mandalas.

II. Brahmanas:

  • Comprise the ritualistic commentaries on the Vedas.
  • Explain the symbolic meaning of rituals and ceremonies.
  • Emphasize the significance of sacrifices and their proper performance.

III. Aranyakas:

  • Literary works associated with forest-dwelling and hermitage life.
  • Bridge the gap between ritualistic Brahmanas and philosophical Upanishads.
  • Contain meditative and speculative content focused on spiritual realization.

IV. Upanishads:

  • Philosophical and mystical texts.
  • Explore the nature of ultimate reality (Brahman) and the individual soul (Atman).
  • Emphasize meditation, introspection, and the pursuit of spiritual knowledge.
  • Form the basis for Vedanta philosophy.

Vedic Literature – Brahmanas


  • Brahmanas: Prose texts embedded within each Veda.
  • Explain hymns, provide myths, and instruct Brahmins on Vedic rituals.


  • Explanation of Samhitas: Elaborate on the symbolism and meaning of Vedic hymns.
  • Scientific Knowledge: Cover observational astronomy, altar construction, and geometry.
  • Divergence: Some Brahmanas contain mystical and philosophical material, forming Aranyakas and Upanishads.


  • Vedic School Connection: Each Brahmana is associated with a specific Shakha or Vedic school.
  • Limited Survivors: Fewer than twenty Brahmanas exist today due to loss or destruction.

Dating and Codification:

  • Controversial Dates: The final codification of Brahmanas is debated, likely recorded after centuries of oral transmission.
  • Age Range: Oldest Brahmana dates to around 900 BCE, while the youngest is estimated at around 700 BCE.

Vedic Literature – Aranyakas

Key Points:

  • Name: Aranyakas are known as “Forest Books.”
  • Interpretation: They interpret sacrificial rituals symbolically and philosophically.

Aranyakas, categorized as “Forest Books,” bridge the transition from the ritualistic Brahmanas to the philosophical Upanishads, providing deeper insights into symbolic interpretations of sacrificial rites.

Vedic Literature – Upanishads

Key Points:

  • Number: There are 108 Upanishads in total.
  • Major Upanishads: Out of the total, 13 are considered major.
  • Central Concepts: Upanishads primarily focus on explaining the concepts of ‘Atman’ and ‘Brahman.’
  • Philosophical Ideas: Upanishads delve into philosophical ideas related to concepts such as Sacrifice, Body, and Universe.




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