kolam1.jpg (10417 bytes) An Introduction to The Vedas kolam1.jpg (10417 bytes)


Every religion, over centuries, has adopted a sacred text which the followers have taken as the ‘Revealed Text’ as having emanated from the Lord Supreme although such a text might have come as commandments from the founder or prophet of that religion. While followers of other religion have been able to identify a single text as their revealed text, Hindus (the term, in the absence of a better term, used for followers of Sanaatana Dharma) are by and large confused as to the answer for such a single text as their religious scripture or text. There is confusion as to whether Ramaayana or Mahaabhaarata or other vedantic texts are to be so referred. This confusion for Hindus is due to the absence of a basic religious education pursued. There is no confusion as to the fact that our religion is not just ritual, but means Dharma. Dharma is which, when followed, will make us happy and contended. In order to know what is meant by the term Dharma we should refer to specific texts. These texts are referred to as ‘Dharmapramaanaas’ or that which give true knowledge of Dharma. The fourteen major texts that are known as the ‘Vidyaasthaanaas’ speak about true Dharma as they enshrine Knowledge and Wisdom.

Angaani  Vedasschatwaaro  meemaamsa  nyaaya  vistarah
Puraanam  Dharmasaastramcha  Vidyahyetaah  chaturdasa.

(Manu Smruti)

Puraana   Nyaaya   Meemaamsaa  Dharma   Saastraanga   misritaah
 Vedaahsthaanaanee  Vidyaanaam  Dharmasya cha chaturdasa

(Yaagnyavalkya Smruti)

This means : four Vedas (Rig, Yajur, Saama and Atharva); the six auxiliaries to Vedas (Shad Vedaangaas, viz., ‘Siksha’  or euphony and pronunciation; ‘Vyaakarnaa’ or grammar; ‘Chandas’ or meter; ‘Niruktha’ or etymology; ‘Jyotisha’ or astronomy; ‘Kalpa’ or procedure), (and four supplements, Upaangaas, viz.,)  ‘Meemaamsa’ or interpretation of Vedic texts; ‘Nyaaya’ or logic; ‘Puraana’ or mythology and ‘Dharma Saastraas’ which contain the codes of conduct  make up the fourteen seats of Wisdom and Knowledge. The Sanskrit word Vidya, Vidwaan etc. originate from the root ‘Vid’.  The term Veda  has the same root. You may appreciate that the English words Wit and Wisdom have all come from the same root! Simplistically put, Veda means ‘ Book of Knowledge’. These texts not only give Wisdom but also the ultimate Knowledge and hence are known as ‘Dharmasthaanaas’. There are four more texts of wisdom which are just Vidyaasthaanas and not Dharmasthaanas; Ayurvedam (about health & medicine), Arthasaastram (economics/statecraft),Dhanurvedam (on archery) and Gaandharvavedam ( on fine arts). These four are called ‘Upavedas’ that help protect the human physique and provide the basis for non-spiritual pleasure. These are necessary for our practical living as opposed to the fourteen Dharmasthaanaas that help our spiritual evolution to ultimate self-realization. Thus, these eighteen basic texts form the core of our texts. 

Many of us might have heard the reference to Hinduism as  ‘Vedic religion’ - a religion which formed out of Vedas and which derives all its tenets from Vedas. It is mind boggling to attempt to write a brief synopsis on Vedas as it defies imagination - where to begin and what to narrate within a few pages. The topic, even the introduction, is so expansive that it is difficult to lay down the preliminary details in a few hundred sentences. The endeavor here is to briefly touch upon the fourteen Dharmasthaanas and delve mainly on the four Vedas and take up the (six) Angaas and (four) Upaangaas at a later date.

The Vedas are called Anaadi, i.e., without a beginning in terms of time. That is to say, anything previous to it or older than it did not exist. This means it has existed at all times - even before the creation of the Cosmos. How can the rational proof-demanding society accept this contention. Authorship is a pre-requisite of any text and ordinary logic refuses to support the claim that a text could have no author. However, the fact remains that the Universe, both the Phenomenal and the Noumenal, extends far beyond ‘Space’ and ‘Time’, the two basic devices and tools used by us to measure any phenomenon. Only some modes of this Universe fall within space and time and are apprehended as physical universe by our conditioned and limited consciousness. We do not and cannot see the limitless ocean, but can see only the waves, wave fronts and froth in it.  This is a  topic in itself and could consume reams of paper even to delineate the convincing arguments that HH Sri Paramaachaarya (68th pontiff of Kaanchi Kaamakoti Sankara Peetham, a Tapasvin of the highest spiritual order (known as ‘ God who walked amidst us) had advanced in his lecturers. The theory of vibrations, sound and creation, inadequacy of research and researchers in rushing to assign an Age to Vedas by reference to Astronomy have all been elaborately explained by the greatest legendary Sage. This can be taken as a specific topic another time. Instead of totally avoiding the subject here, it would suffice to point to two important references on the permanence of Vedas:

Vidyaaranya who wrote the Veda Bhaashya ( commentary) regarded his Guru as Iswara or God Himself and reiterates the statement contained in Brihadhaaranyaka Upanishad (2.4.10) that Rig,Yajur, Saama and Atharva Veda forms are Iswara’s breath ‘Nishwasitham’ (exhalation of breath). 

Lord Krishna, the Gitaachaarya says in the Gita ( Ch. XV.15 ),  Vedaischa Sarvairahameva  Vedyah - “ I am the person who is to be known by all the Vedas ”. He never, however, calls himself as one who made the Vedas but refers to himself as the subject of all Vedanta - Vedaantakrit -  and not as Vedakrit. He calls himself as Vedavit - one who knows all Vedas. Iswara and the Vedas have co-existed in His absolute and conceptual state as described in the Vedanta, before He made himself and the end product of Evolution, even before Creation.

It has to be understood that the Vedas are vast and what we discuss today as Vedas is limited in extent. Vedas themselves clearly state that Vedas are verily endless - ‘Anantaa vai Vedah’. Only a small portion of the limitless Vedas got ‘revealed’ to the venerable Rishis as ‘vibrations’.                                         

The four Vedas, Rig, Yajur, Saama and Atharva, which are believed to be vibrations in space absorbed by blessed Rishis (seers) and revealed to the mankind were synthesized more than 5,000 years ago, probably,  at the beginning of this (Kali) Yuga, by Bhagawan Veda Vyaasa and  consisted of 1,131 Saakhaas (recensions or branches), 21 in Rik, 101 in Yajus, 1000 in Saama and 9 in Atharva. They were preserved in the Parampara (line) of Rishis, viz., Paila, Vaishampaayana, Jaimini and Sumanthu, by oral tradition, from father to son and guru (teacher) to sishya (disciple). Of late,  the notion that education other than Vedic studies alone would ensure a livelihood, has led to many in the line taking to secular studies, resulting in many Vedic Saakhaas becoming unavailable for mortals today. Even amidst the available Vedic scholars who are very few in number, those who can chant from memory could be counted on one’s fingers. As of date, only 10 recensions are available, and thanks to the efforts of Achaaryaas from the three major schools of our philosophy (Advaita, Vishishtaadvaita and Dvaita ) particularly to Kanchi Paramachaaryaa (who lived 99 years amidst us and revered by one and all as the ‘incarnation’ of Iswara), and a few organizations which  have been attempting to keep the spirit for pursuit and learning of Vedas alive.

Mantras, are revelations to the Great seers ( Rishis) who captured the vibrations of Vedas as such. They are the Rishis to whom the Mantras are said to belong. They possessed the Divine ear to hear those mantras. Yoga Saastra says that, if the spatial expanse in the skies and the space, which exists in a microform in the mind of the listener, are unified, all the otherwise inaudible and suspended sounds in space will become audible to us. Those who feel in unison with all objects in creation can alone feel the sound. ‘Rationalists’ should have no difficulty in admitting at least a part of this explanation as many sounds (such as low and high frequency conversations of various living beings) which were, hitherto, considered inaudible to human ears, are now made audible with special scientific assistance. Suffice to say that Rishis brought forth the mantras for the benefit of the world and did not create them. No praise is too high for the Rishis who have blessed us with the mantras that were beyond our grasp.

By definition, Mantra means that by repeatedly meditating upon which one is saved - Mananaath thraayathe’  ithi  mantrah. If one is to realize the correct import of, succeed with and get the fullest benefit from the Mantras, there is a prescribed method for chanting them. The below mentioned (six) methods of recitation are pronounced to be incorrect and  should be avoided.

Geetee Seeghree Sirah kampee thathaa likhita paathakah
Anarthajnah alpakantascha Shadaitay pathakaadhamaah

(Siksha  Saashtra )

Geetee is one who chants in a singsong fashion. Though Saamaveda is musically recited, it can be recited only in the approved musical way and not as one pleases. Further, since the sound and its variations have potency, recitation other than in the proper swara is not only improper but also harmful.

Seegree is one who chants in a quick tempo and ends the recitation quickly. The intonation should be adhered to the time limits prescribed for uttering each word-sound. Sirahkampee is one who shakes and nods his head needlessly while chanting.

Likhitapaathakah is one reads from the written script. Vedas are otherwise known as Sruti’  and should be learnt by ear from the oral chanting by a competent teacher and committed to memory in the proper manner.

Anarthajnah means one who does not understand the meaning.

Alpakantha is one who recites in a feeble voice. In order that the sound vibrations have good effect, the sounds should be properly audible and not mumbled.

The Vedic Tree and its Saakhaas

We saw earlier that  ‘Endless are the Vedas’ , but what is available to us today are just 10 recensions or Vedic Saakhaas (branches). Although we refer to Vedas as four in number, there are different versions and differing methods of recitation of these four. These are called  paathaantharam or way of recitation and each such school of recitation or recension is called ‘ Saakha’. Each of these is a branch of the Vedic tree. In each Saakha, there are three portions called Samhita, Braahmana and Aaranyaka. This again is a classification. When we speak of Veda adyayana, it is generally a reference to the recitation of the Samhita portion as Samhitaas are the foundation of a Saakha. Samhita means that which has been collected and arranged. It brings out the purport of a Veda and Samhitaas  are mantras systematically arranged. We will see about Braahmana and  Aaranyaka after we briefly glance through the contents of the four Vedas.

Rig Veda

The whole of the Rig Veda Samhita is in the form verses ( slokaas - stanzas) and it may be noted that Slokaa was earlier known as ‘Rik’ or a ‘hymn’ in  praise. Each Rik is a mantra and a number of Riks constitute a ‘Sookta’. The Samhita portion of Rig Veda contains 10,170 Riks grouped into 1028 Sooktaas and encompassed within 10 mandalas and 8 ashtakaas and these sooktaaas are in praise of all Devataas. The marriage rites that are being followed today have originally been created on the pattern of the marriage of Sooryaa’s daughter, which is detailed in Rig Veda. The cognoscente extol many portions in Rig Veda as masterpieces of poetic composition. The action that Yajur Veda predicates and the musical recitation that Saama  Veda dictates emerge from the basic Riks in Rig Veda. Rig Veda itself contains references to Yajus and Saama Vedas in many places. Purusha Sooktaa, which appears in tenth mandala, nineteenth hymn of Rig Veda, refers to the other Vedas as well. This should ,therefore, be able to clarify the confusion of the modern researchers who are keen in assigning to Rig Veda a date earlier than Yajur Veda , Saama Veda etc. As per our Saastraas, all the Vedas co-existed with the Paramapurusha (Supreme Lord) at the beginning of all Creation. Aitareya Upanishad  that deals with the turmoil of a Jeeva (soul)  and  which  teaches the method to cut away from the cycle of Births and Deaths and  emphasizes that ‘the Thought (Prajnaana)  itself is the Brahman’  appears at the end of the Aitareya Aaranyaka of Rig Veda.

Yajur Veda

The words Yajus and Yaj are derived from the root ‘yaj’, which  means worship.  Just as the word ‘Rig’ itself means a Hymn in praise, the word ‘ Yajus’ connotes spelling out the ritualistic procedure of the Yagna (sacrificial worship). Yajur Veda gives the mantras in Rig Veda appearing in the form of hymns a practical shape in the form of Yajna.  In addition to referring to many mantras in hymn form from Rig Veda, Yajur Veda describes in prose the procedural details for the performance of different Yagnas. Although Yajur Veda has several branches (Saakhaas), as in the other Vedas, it has two main branches with numerous recensions in each branch. Those are called Sukla Yajur Veda and Krishna Yajur Veda.  As Rishi Yaajnavalkya is believed to have learnt this Samhita from Sun God (Vaajasani), this came to be known as Vaajasaneyi Samhita. The earlier version of the Yajur Veda taught by Rishi Vaisampaayana  came to be called as Krishna Yajur Veda. The glory of Yajur Veda lies in its clear presentations of Vedic Karma or Rituals. The Taittareeya Samhita in Krishna Yajur Veda makes Asvamedha Yajnaas such as Darsa Poornamasa, Somayaaga, Vaajapeya, and Raajasooya, known to the world in all its grandeur of procedural details. Yajur Veda also contains rare hymns of praise which are not contained in Rig Veda, such as the Sri Rudram. Although five Sooktaas called ‘ Pancha Rudram’, find a place in Rig Veda, Sri Rudram of today refers only to that which is contained in Yajur Veda. Over a period of time, a vast majority have come to follow the Yajur Veda. While Sukla Yajur is the one recension mostly followed in Northern India, Krishna Yajur  is prevalent school in South India. Again, the Purusha Sookta of today generally refers to the version that appears in Yajur Veda although it originally belonged to Rig Veda. The three fold benefits of Yajna, performance of a Yajna without desiring any results or reward as stated in Bhagavad Gita , and  attaining total Bliss (Aananda)  are not taken up for discussion now due to space constraints. While Easaavaasya Upanishad comes from the Samhita portion of Sukla Yajur Veda, Brahadaaranyaka Upanishad, the biggest of all Upanishads appears a whole Aaranyaka of Sukla Yajus. Taittareeya Upanishad which is the most widely studied of the ten Upanishads and which contains mantras for most of the rituals (Karmaanushtaana) appears in the Aaaranyaka portion of Krishna Yajur Veda.

Saama Veda

Saama’ means to bring peace to the minds or ‘ Shaanti’. Many of the Riks or mantras of Rig-Veda are set to music in melodious hymns in Saama Veda with lengthened notes. Saama Gaana can be said to be the basis and source of the Sapta Swara (seven notes) concept fundamental to Indian Music systems. Saama Gaana or singing of the hymns as per rules of Saama Veda propitiates all Devataas. In Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna Bhagavaan says ‘ Amongst Vedas, I am Saama Veda’. What appears in the Chaandogya Braahmana of Saama Veda is Chaandogya Upanishad.Chaandoga’ means one who sings the Saama Gaana. Chaandogya Upanishad mantras constitute the supreme authority (pramaana) for the Brahma Sutra of Veda Vyaasa. Kenopanishad also called as Talavakaara Upanishad as it appears in Talavakaara Brahmana of the Jaimini Saakha of Saama Veda.

Atharva Veda

Atharva means a purohit (priest). This Rishi, called Atharvan brought the mantras in the Atharva Veda to the world. The various types of mantras contained in this Veda are designed to ward off evil and destroy the enemies. These mantras are in prose as well as in verses. Some of the mantras found in this Veda pertain to Devatas not mentioned in the other Vedas. The hymn, which extols the wonder of Creation called the ‘Prithvi Sooktam’, appears in Atharva Veda. Among the ten major Upanishads, Prasna, Mundaka and Maandukya’  are from this Veda. The importance of this Veda can be judged from the well known saying, for a Mumukshu (or seeker after Truth), Maandukya Upanishad alone can ensure Moksha (Liberation).

The Gaayatri  to which the young Brahmacharins are initiated during Upanayana is called Tripaada Gaayatri, i.e. three legged. It is so called since it has three limbs. Each limb is the essence of one Veda. Atharva Veda has a Gaayatri of its own. Hence the conventional rule to get initiated into Atharva Gaayatri before learning Atharva Veda.

There are very few who are today learned in the Atharva Veda Saakha  that were once very popular in Northern India.  There is, of course, no pure Atharva Vedin prevalent in South India today. Atharva Vedins are found in small numbers in Gujarat, Orissa and Nepal.

Braahmana and Aaranyaka

The main text of a Veda, which we so far discussed, is its Samhita portion. Each Veda has two other parts called Braahmana  and Aaranyaka. Braahmana lists what  Vedic rituals and how they are to be performed. The Braahmanas serve the purpose of a guidebook explaining each word for understanding to ensure proper use of the mantra. Aaranyaka is derived from Aranya (forest). While Samhita or Braahmana do not advocate the observer to seek the solitude of the forest, the next step after obtaining mental purity by observances of Karma is seeking solitude for further concentration and meditation. Thus, Aaaranyaka portions of the Vedas are meant to explain the inner meaning, the doctrine, contained in the Samhitas as mantras and in the Braahmanas as Karmas. The Brihadhaaranyaka Upanishad, which is a combination of Aaranyaka and Upanishad explains Aswamedha Yajna on such a note  of analytical philosophy.


This is a vast subject by itself. I have already mentioned about the ten Upanishads while introducing the four Vedas.  However, before I conclude the introduction on Vedas, I must briefly touch upon this quintessence of Vedas.

If Samhita is likened to a foundation of a major branch, the Braahmanas are its flowers, the Aaranyakas are its fruits in an unripened state and the Upanishads are the ripe fruits from the Veda Vriksham (Vedic Tree). Although Upanishads contain references to various disciplines of learning, sacrificial worship etc.,  the main theme of all Upanishads is a philosophical inquiry dealing with that supreme state of mind with all shackles destroyed. On this basis, the Vedas are divided into two divisions of pursuits - one dealing with rituals/action called Karma Kaanda and the other dealing with Knowledge called Jnaana Kaanda. These are also referred to as Poorva Mimaamsa and Uttara Mimaamsa. While Maharishi Jaimini concluded Karma Kaanda to be the fruit of Vedic philosophy, Sage Veda Vyaasa concluded that Jnaana Kaanda was the quintessence of the Vedas and these he stated in the form of aphorisms called Brahma Sutra.

Upa-ni-shada means ‘ to sit by the side’. What was taught by making the disciple sit by the side of the teacher is the Upanishads. It is also taken to mean ‘ that which helps you reach the side of or near “Brahmam. The Upanishads permit dual interpretation as above just as ‘Upanayana’  is interpreted both as ‘ leading to the Guru’ and ‘leading to the Paramaatma’. Upanishad  is not for those who are not mentally conditioned to absorb the teachings. Upanishads themselves say, when propounding subtle Truths, “ This is Upanishad. This is Upanishad.”. That which is latent in the Vedas is called Rahasya or secret. The Upanishads are such confidential personalized instructions to those fit to receive them. 

Adi Sankaraachaarya selected ten of the Upanishads, popularly known as Dasopanishads and wrote Bhaashya or commentary on them. He highlighted the non-dualist (Advaita) doctrine propounded in them. Ramaanujaacharya and Madhvaachaarya, who came later, also wrote Bhaashyas on these very ten Upanishads but each of them emphasized their respective doctrines, viz., Visishta-Advaita (qualified non-dualism) and Dvaita (Dualism). Adi Sankara’s commentary is in the following order of texts.

Eaasa  Kena  Kathaa  Prasna  Munda  Maandukya  Taithari
Aitareyam  cha  Chaandogyam  Brahadhaaranyakam   Dasa

The word Veda  means ‘ to know’. The Upanishads define Aatma as that by knowing which all things will have become known. The goal of the Vedas is to make known that Aatma. Whether it is the Karma, which comes in the beginning, or knowledge (Jnaana) which comes at the end, the Central theme is to know the Iswara - Brahman - Aatma.


The unusual characteristics of the Vedas are:  1) they are without a beginning (Anaadi) , (2) they have no human authorship (apourusheya), and (3) they are at the root of all creation. The greatness of Vedas are something more than these. The sound while chanting them activates our nerve centers and also affects the atmosphere, resulting in individual as well as collective well being of the world. Collective well being extends beyond humanity and encompasses the well being of animals and plants as well. Latest research in the field of music has found that mere delineation of ragas or musical notes help cure diseases and help promote growth of vegetation and high yields of fruits and vegetables. The outstanding feature of the Vedas, therefore, lies in the fact that the sound of the mantras by itself when chanted, has a meaning, apart from the words which are also full of meaning. Vedas contain injunctions for ensuring the well being in this world and the world to come. It guides the actions of a person from the moment of birth to the moment of death and thereafter ensure salvation. It does not stop at individual salvation. How should the society behave, what are the duties of the common man, how should  a country be governed, what should be the conduct of men and women - all these aspects have been presented in a codified form in the Vedas. This is the prime reason why we should refer to our religion as a ‘code of conduct’ - lacking in dogma - ‘ Sanaatana Dharma’  and not as ‘Hinduism’ coined by the invaders and which reference, unfortunately, has come to stay.

All the four Vedas , although differing in certain observances or precepts or modes of recitations,  have a common goal and that is to ensure the well being of the Universe and to help every one towards spiritual progress. The most admired feature of the Vedas is that no Veda says, ‘this is the only way or this is the only God’. All of them repeat that any good path followed with Faith and Loyalty, irrespective of the Devata you worship or the form or the method of worship, will lead the worshipper to the True and Ultimate Goal. While every other religion in the world says that its Doctrine alone is capable of leading the followers to Heaven, The Vedas alone have such a unique Vision to say that the same Truth can be realized in many ways by those pursuing diverse routes. This is the uniqueness or greatness of Vedas.

Thiruvaiyaru Krishnan