Nomenclature of the Vedas


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The Vedas are the first and oldest literary documents in the history of humankind that are still in existence. They transcend far beyond their identity as Holy Scriptures.

Definition of the Vedas

pratyakshena-anumityä vä yastüpäyo na budhyate |
enam vidanti vedena tasmäd vedasya vedatä ||
- Säyanäcärya

Säyanäcärya (around CE 1315-1381), the most celebrated commentator on Vedic texts, has defined the Vedas as, ishtapräpti-anishta-parihärayor-alaukikam-upäyam yo grantho vedayati sa vedah, meaning, ‘that which contains the esoteric ways to achieve the desired objects, and to avoid the undesired, is called the Veda.’ Thus, Veda is a source of knowledge of esoteric measure, which cannot be known through any other pramäna i.e. pratyakshya or anumäna.

Apaurusheyattvam of the Vedas

Apaurusheyattvam of the Vedas is stated in the Vedas itself in RV X.90.9 (Purusha-süktam), which is repeated in SYV XXXI.7 (Purusha-süktam), ), AV XIX.6.13 (Jagad-bijapurusha-süktam), and AV X.7.20 (Sarvädhära-varnana-süktam), and Br.Up-II.4.10 (Yäjnavalkya-Maitreyi-samväda).

The earliest reference about apaurusheyattvam of the Vedas is by Uttara-Mimämsäkära Bädaräyana who has declared the Vedas to be apaurusheya in his sütra - sästrayonitvät (Br.Su.-I.1.3, which is deciphered as sästrasya yonih meaning - Brahman is the source of the sästra i.e. the Vedas, hence it is apaurusheya.(The other meaning is sästra yoni yasya (bahuvrihi) meaning, through which (sästra), it (Brahman) can be known.

The Subject Matter of the Vedas


Swämi Dayänanda Saraswati (b.1930-) founder of Ärsha Vidyä tradition gives the above model in explaining the subject matter of the Veda.

i) Unknown means, known end – The Veda contains putra-kameshti, which is otherwise unknown, and the result is the birth of a child(ren), which is known/visible. Putra-kameshti is a very expensive ritual, which only a king or a very rich man can perform. Perhaps the Veda designed it as such.

It also tells about the know-how of Käriri, that brings about rains, which is visible. Käriri, unlike Putra-kameshti, is an inexpensive ritual. It is performed even now, and it works.

ii) Known means, unknown end – The Veda tells about pürta-karmas (altruistic deeds, acts of outreaching activities) that will lead a person to heaven hereafter. Here the charitable action is known, however the promise of heaven is unknown (Heaven is a srutänta, not drshtänta).

iii) Unknown means, unknown end – The Veda tells about various Somayäga/s that will result in going to heaven and better births hereafter. Here the know-how of Somayäga is unknown except through the Veda, and heaven or better life hereafter is also unknown (It is a matter of sraddhä, at the best).

iv) Known means, known end – This is not the area/subject-matter of the Veda; it is the area within which science operates. Hence, people’s frantic attempt to prove the Veda as scientific, is their lack of understanding.

The Vedas as Pramäna
Various Indian Philosophical systems have taken different positions on the Vedas as a valid means of knowledge - pramäna. Philosophical systems that accept the Vedas are known as ästika or orthodox schools; these include Nyäya, Vaiseshika, Sämkhya, Yoga, Pürva-Mimämsä and Uttara-Mimämsä. The term ästika or nästika is not based on acceptance or non-acceptance of god. It is based on whether the school accepts the Vedas as pramäna or not. Thus, of these six systems, although Sämkhya and Pürva-Mimämsä do not accept the existence of Isvara, nevertheless they are considered as ästika systems. (In Sämkhya’s 25-principle model of Srshtitattva, Isvara is not there. Pürva-Mimämsä contends that performance of karma (rituals) creates its result; there is no need or scope of intervention by an external principle (Isvara).

In fact, the systems that are directly based upon the Vedas are Pürva-Mimämsä and Uttara-Mimämsä. These two schools accept the Vedas as svatah-pramäna (self-evident means of knowledge). The other four (Nyäya, Vaiseshika, Sämkhya, Yoga) are not directly based on the Vedas, but do accept its testimony, and try to show how their systems are harmonious with the Vedas.

The philosophical systems that do not accept the authority of the Vedas are – Buddhism, Jainism, the Cärväkas/Cäruväkas - a movement that existed between 600 BCE – CE 1400. They are termed nästika or heterodox schools.

Division of the Vedas:
Karma-Kända and Jnäna-Kända
The Vedic literature, as stated before, comprise Rgveda, Yajurveda, Sämaveda and Atharvaveda. Each of these again has four divisions, viz. the Samhitäs, the Brähmanas, the Äranyakas, and the Upanishads. According to Vedic etymologist Yäska, there are only two divisions of the Vedas, i.e. the Samhitäs and the Brähmanas (the Äranyakas forming only a part of the Brähmanas). Äpastamba, one of the most renowned lawgivers of ancient India, also holds the same view as ‘mantra-brähmanayor-veda-nämadheyam’. The Upanishads are mostly different chapters of the Äranyakas, although some Upanishads are in the Brähmana (Prasna, Mundaka, Mändükya Upanishads belong to Gopatha Brähmana of the Paippaläda-Säkhä of the Atharvaveda) portions, and one Upanishad in the Samhitä (Isaväsyopanishad is the 40th Chapter of the Sukla Yajurveda Samhitä).

Based on the subject matter (vishaya), the purpose (prayojanam), and eligibility of the student (adhikäri), the Vedic corpus is divided into two parts called Karma-kända and Jnäna-kända. Two distinct and different philosophical systems developed out of this division, - Pürva-Mimämsä on the Karma-kända, and Uttara-Mimämsä on the Jnäna-kända. Sage Jaimini wrote an analytical text on the Karma-kända portion of the Vedas named Pürvamimämsä-Sütra or Jaimini-Sütra. Subsequently, Bädaräyana wrote Brahmasütra, also known as Uttaramimäàsä-Sütra. The subject of Karmakända is performance of rituals (obligatory as well as optional). The Jnänakända presents the reality of Isvara, the jiva, the jagat, and the equation between them. This division is rather loose, since many Upanishads are placed in the Samhitä and Brähmana portions, as stated earlier. The division as ‘Karmakända’ and ‘Jnänakända’ is not found in any Vedic texts.

The Veda establishes ‘dharma’ by means of Brähmana texts, and ‘brahmavidyä’ through Upanishads. The chief proponent of the Vedantic movement was Bädaräyana.

Division of the Vedas:

Samhitäs, Brähmanas, Äranyakas and Upanishads:
The Samhitä (collection) are collection of sacred hymns (süktas) in different metres (Gäyatri, Brhati, Jagati, Anushtubh etc.) and are mostly addressed to various deities. As the Samhitäs are predominantly in verse or metres, they are also known as chandas. There are four Samhitäs, viz. Rgveda-Samhitä, Yajurveda-Samhitä, Sämaveda-Samhitä and Atharvaveda-Samhitä, each of which are again available in several recensions (säkhäs).

Rgveda contains hymns invoking various deities. Yajus means sacrificial formulae, and Yajurveda consists of about two thousand formulae (SYV - 2,086 in exact) in prose for varied rituals. When ritualistic practice developed, people wanted to sing rather than just recite the hymns. This was the origin of Sämaveda. All but 99 of Sämaveda’s (Ränäyaniya Säkhä) 1,875 verses are borrowed from Rgveda. Atharvaveda contain charms and spells chanted to avert calamities and to destroy the enemies. There are around six thousand (5,977 in exact) formulae in Atharvaveda (Saunaka Säkhä), mostly spells against diseases, enemies and evil spirits.

Various Säkhäs of the Samhitäs

Based on various authorities who expounded the Vedic mantras through the oral tradition, there was large number of Vedic recensions (säkhäs), of which only a few are now extant. In each of the four Vedas, there are different recensions - päthas and päthabhedas or päthäntaras. Each päthäntara, or each version is called a säkhä or recension. The various säkhäs are the branches of the Vedic tree. The branches belong to one of the four Vedas – Rk, Yajus, Säma and Atharva.

Each säkhä consists of the Samhitä, the Brähmana, and Äranyaka. There may be more süktas in some päthas than in others. There may also be differences in the order of the mantras. When one speaks of veda-adhyayana, it refers to Samhitä only. One may bring out the Samhitä of Rgveda and still call it Rgveda. The Samhitä is indeed the very basis of a säkhä, its life-breath. The word samhitä means ‘systematised and collected together’. Krshna Dvaipäyana divided the corpus of Vedas into four, and subdivided into säkhäs.

Number of Säkhäs:
There are differences of opinions as per the number of the säkhäs. The Vishnu Puräna mentions the number of säkhäs to be 1,180. As per Caranavyüha there were 1,133 säkhäs.
Patanjali, the great commentator had mentioned 1,131 ‘säkhäs’ - 21 recensions of Rgveda, 101 recensions of Yajurveda (Sukla-Yajurveda 15, and Krshna Yajurveda 86), 1,000 recensions of Sämaveda, and 9 recensions of the Atharvaveda.

However, during these 5,000 years and more, many säkhäs have been lost. Out of the 1,131 säkhäs, only thirteen säkhäs (RV-2, +SYV-2, +KYV-4, +SV-3, + AV-2) are preserved in form, content and purity. As per a survey made in 1980, it was estimated that in India and Nepal, there are only 1,750 Vedic pundits and about 650 vidyärthis learning the Vedas through adhyayana.

The Samhitäs of all the four Vedas together have around 20,490 mantras. Rgveda (Säkala) - 10,552; Sukla-Yajurveda - 2,086; Sämaveda (Ranäyaniya) -1,875; and Atharvaveda (Saunaka) - 5,977.