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The Vedic period in northern India: Part three: the content of the Vedas and post-Vedic texts.


photo by Manfred Antranias Zimmer courtesy of

The word “Veda” in Sanskrit means “knowledge” or “wisdom.”  In some contexts, as in the Rigveda, it means “obtaining or finding wealth, property” and in others, “a bunch of grass together” as for a broom or a ritual fire (the “homa” and “yajna” rituals involve sacred fires.)

The Vedas are divided into four groups: the Rigveda (the oldest), the Yajurveda, the Samaveda, and the Atharvaveda.  All four Vedic texts include, first, Samhitas, which are collections of mantras (sacred utterances or numinous sounds.)  The mantras invoke deities like Indra (the highest deity, analogous to Jupiter) and Agni (the god of fire.)  The Samhitas are thought to have been created before any of the other elements.

The second element of each Veda is the Brahmana, a prose text that comments on the rituals and their meanings.  The Brahmanas were composed between 900 and 700 BCE.  The third element is the Aranyaka or “wilderness text.”  These were composed by recluses who retired to the woods to meditate.  They contain interpretations of the ceremonies.

The final element is the Upanishad.  The Upanishads are philosophical texts, the foundations of Hindu thought.  These are by far the best-known of the Veda texts and were the latest to be composed, after 800 BCE.

Additional materials included as corollaries are the later Upanishads and late Sutras (“threads”), “remembered” texts.  The Sutras are collections of aphorisms or brief sayings, around which ritual, philosophical, grammatical, or other knowledge areas are developed.  There are Sutras within the Brahmana and Aranyaka texts of each Veda as well as in later materials.  In some of the Vedas, only quotes survive; in others, the full text is still extant.

Additional texts that developed after the Vedas included the Vedangas, which appeared because the language of the Vedas was too archaic for the people of later times to understand.  The Vedangas had six explanatory aspects: phonetics, poetic meter, grammar, etymology and linguistics, rituals and rites of passage, and time keeping and astronomy.

The Parisistas were ancillary texts that covered details of ritual and extensions of the texts of each Veda.   The Upavedas (“applied knowledge”) texts covered archery (for the Yajurveda), architecture (for the Rigveda), music and sacred dance (for the Samaveda), and medicine (for the Atharvaveda.)

There are some very consequential post-Vedic texts that we will describe here.  The first is the Mahabharata, the second the Ramayana.  Both are epics that describe legendary events but are regarded as historical by Hindus.  Additional post-Vedic texts are detailed later.

The Mahabharata tells the struggle between two groups of cousins that made up the Kurukshetra War, and tells the fates of the Kaurava princes (descendants of King Kuru) and the Pandava brothers who fought in the war.  The Mahabharata includes the Bhagavad Gita (a dialogue between Prince Arjuna and his charioteer Krishna regarding dharma) which will be covered in detail later as it is not only famous but very influential.

The Mahabharata also includes a story about Damayanti and King Nala (who is possessed by the demon Kali), the oldest version of the story of Savitri and Satyavan (a pure princess and a doomed prince), a version of the story of Rishyasringa (a boy born with the horns of a deer) among other stories.  These will also be detailed later on.  The text also includes a short version of the Ramayana called “Ramopakhyana.”

The Mahabharata also contains “philosophical and devotional material” such as a discussion of “purushartha” (the four goals of life): dharma (righteousness), artha (prosperity), kama (pleasure), and moksha (liberation or spiritual value.)  Dharma is the most important and moksha is the ultimate ideal of life.  This is a matter of debate among Hindus, as to which is more important and even whether there is a hierarchy of goals.

There is a disagreement as to which of the four goals should be pursued and how.  Some, at one extreme, would say that wealth and pleasure should be renounced for the sake of spiritual liberation.  Others say that, depending on one’s age or stage of life, one should pursue one aim or another, but not exclusively.

The second really important post-Vedic text is the Ramayana, dated roughly between the fifth and first centuries BCE..  This work describes the life of Prince Rama.  He was exiled to the forest by his father at his step-mother’s urging and spent fourteen years wandering there.  He travelled with his wife (the daughter of the earth goddess) and his brother.  His wife was kidnapped by a demon king, sparking a war.  Eventually, Prince Rama returned to his birth city, Ayodhya (a legendary city but identified with the present-day city.)

The Ramayana is a huge epic, historical on its surface, which describes ideal relationships and presents narrative allegories by Hindu sages.  The central characters are also known as gods: Rama (an avatar of Vishnu), and his wife, brother, and other characters are incarnations of various gods.  There are multiple versions of the Ramayana in Buddhist, Jainist, and Sikh literature as well as versions specific to India, Nepal, and Southeast Asian countries.

More important post-Vedic texts mentioned in Wikipedia include the Natyashastra, a work on the performing arts (drama and dance.)  Then there are the Puranas (“ancient texts”), a vast group of works that include legends and traditional lore.  The Puranas cover many topics, to name a few: cosmogony, cosmology, genealogies of gods, kings, and heroes, medicine, astronomy, mineralogy, theology, philosophy, love stories, humor, and folk tales.

The Puranas were composed from the 3rd to the 10th century of the common era and the Hindu versions are anonymous (Jainist Puranas generally have authors and dates.)  They are highly influential documents and form the basis for national and regional festivals of Hinduism.  However, they are inconsistent and unreliable, particularly in their allegedly historical parts like genealogies.

The Puranas form a huge corpus of varied viewpoints, rituals, and cultural touchstones, suitable for every taste.  Their influence on modern Hinduism continues.  This group of documents is too individualistic to summarize briefly in a basic post such as this.  I will confine myself to a precis of some of the older texts and legends.

Hindu philosophy arises from the roots found in the Vedas and post-Vedic writings.  There are six basic orthodox systems of Hindu thought based in the Vedas: Sankhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Mimamsa and Vedanta.  Very briefly, these schools can be described in the following ways:

According to Wikipedia, “Sāmkhya is an enumerationist philosophy whose epistemology accepts three of six pramanas (proofs) as the only reliable means of gaining knowledge. These include pratyakṣa (perception), anumāṇa (inference) and śabda (āptavacana, word/testimony of reliable sources).”  The philosophy is described as rationalist, atheist and dualist.

Yoga is quite similar to Samkhya but allows for the existence of god.  The text Yoga Vasistha is quoted in Wikipedia: “Yoga is the utter transcendence of the mind and is of two types.  Self-knowledge is one type, another is the restraint of the life-force of self limitations and psychological conditioning.”  This is entirely different from the modern physical exercise known as “hatha yoga.”

The Nyaya school is described by Wikipedia thusly: “This school’s most significant contributions to Indian philosophy was [sic] systematic development of the theory of logic, methodology, and its treatises on epistemology.”  It posits that human suffering is a result of acting under wrong knowledge, and that liberation can be obtained through right knowledge.

Vaisheshika “accepted only two reliable means to knowledge: perception and inference.”  It is unique in its exposition of a form of atomism among orthodox schools and in this way resembled the heterodox school of Ajivika.

Mimamsa philosophy refers to a tradition of contemplation reflecting on the meanings of the early Veda texts and ritual actions.  It is said to be a form of philosophical realism.  It contains several sub-schools.

Vedanta, meaning “end of the Vedas” is said to “reflect ideas that emerged from the speculations and philosophies contained in the Upanishads, specifically, knowledge and liberation.”  Vedanta covers many variant schools of thought.

Hindu philosophy also consists in schools that integrate some of the aspects of each of these six orthodox systems of thought.   Other philosophies that reject the authority of the Vedas are called heterodox.  These include Buddhism (the “middle way”), Jainism (an ascetic sect), Carvaka (materialist and skeptical), and Ajivika (denying free will), to begin with.

I will attempt to go back to the oldest ideas found in pre-Hindu and pre-Veda religious thought in the next post.


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