The Four Vedas
The term Veda is derived from the Sanskrit root vid, to know. Its Latin cognate video to see, has also the same connotation. The Rishis, who composed the contents of the Veda, were the seers of hymns, which when studied rightly, are found to embody knowledge of eternal value. Veda is, therefore, the Book of Knowledge.
Veda is a collective term, indicating the four Vedas, viz.: Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda. The Vedas are called Samhitas because they are collections or anthologies of hymns and mantras. The great sage Vyasa has been regarded as the compiler of these collections.
Among the Vedas, the Rigveda Samhita occupies a prominent place. It is divided into ten Mandalas [chapters] comprising 1017 hymns or Suktas.1 The total number of mantras in this Samhita is more than ten thousand. Only one Shakha2 of this Samhita is available.
The Yajurveda Samhita has two versions, viz., Shukla and
Krishna. The Shukia Yajurveda Samhita has two available Shakhas, viz., Madhyandina Shakha and Kanva comprising forty chapters and about 2000 mantra units. Similarly, the Krishna Yajurveda Samhita has five available Shakhas, viz., Taittiriya, Katha, Kathaka, Kapisthala and Maitrayani.
The Samaveda Samhita is a book of songs. There are 1875 mantras of which only 75 are independent new mantras. All the rest are reproduced from the Rigveda. Only three Shakhas of this Samhita are available now, viz., Kauthuma, Ranayaniya and Jaiminiya.
The Atharvaveda Samhita deals with the occult side of the Vedic knowledge as also with the cure of diseases, devices for counteracting evil influence of invisible forces, etc., and also provides for the maintenance of positive health, peace in the family and the country and humanity. Only two Shakhas are available now, viz., Saunaka and Paippalada. The Samhita is divided into 20 Kandas comprising about 6000 mantras.
In terms of Vedic rituology, the Rigveda is meant for Hota who invokes the gods, Yajurveda for Adhvaryu who offers oblations to the fire, the Samaveda for Udgata who sings songs in honour of the gods, and the Atharvaveda for Brahma who is in the overall charge of rituals.
But behind the outer system of rituology, there is the secret of the Veda, which consists of the profoundest truths of psychology, methods of yoga and statements of the highest realisations of the spiritual Reality and its relationship with the universe and the individual. The Vedic knowledge has continued right up to the present day to grow as also to inspire various currents of Indian culture.
1. A Sukta (hymn) is a group of verses; the number of verses in a Sukta is not definite; some Suktas have a small number of verses, some others have a large number of them. Each Sukta expresses one movement of sadhana, in which the knowledge connected with that movement is revealed.
2. Shakha means a branch of variation or version. In course of development, each Vedic Samhita came to develop certain variations on account of various factors. These variations came to be acknowledged and standardised, and although each Samhita is substantially the same, Shakhas of each Samhita became numerous and they embody the recognised variations or versions.