One of the most important and valuable contributions of the Aryans to the Indian Culture is Vedic literature. It has been described as the store-house of knowledge which for thousands of years has been shedding light and showing the right path to the humanity for all these years.
In fact the principles of knowledge, karma mid worship which form the essentials of Vedic literature, represent the cream and intellectual heights of Aryan philosophy.
It may be further noted that. Vedas are not an individual library work like the Quran or the Bible, but is a mass of literature which has grown up in the course of centuries. Though there are four Vedas—Rig- Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda, certain Sanatanist scholars include the Brahmanas, Upanishads and Aranyakas also amongst the Vedas.
The Arya Smajist scholars would, however, restrict the term to the four Vedas and consider the Brahmanas, Upanishads, Samhitas and Aranyakas as appendages to the Vedas.
The vast literature of the Aryans is divided into two parts— Sruti and Smriti. The former is that part of the Vedic literature which, according to Hindu belief, was not composed by any living being but was revealed to certain sages by God and they passed on that knowledge orally from one generation to another.
This type of literature is regarded as the most sacred and includes’, the Vedas in its fold. The Smriti literature on the other hand does not bear any divine character and is hence considered less sacred. This category of literature was composed by the Rishis on the basis of their memory and includes within its fold Vedangas and Upavedas etc.
Division of Vedas:
The Vedic literature is usually divided into three period. The Mantra Period when the Samhitas were composed ; Brahman Period when the Brahmanas, Upanishads and Aranyakas were composed ; and the Sutra Period. These three periods succeeded or over-lapped each other.
1. The Mantra Period:
As the name itself suggests the Samhitas were collection of hymns, prayers, charms, litanies and sacrificial formulas.
There are in all four Samhitas, each marking an advance over the other:
(i) Rig Veda Samhita:
The Rig Veda is the oldest and the most important literary document in the world. It consists of 102! (according to some 1017) hymns arranged into ten Mandalas or books. It is the earliest of the four Vedas and was composed by priests like Bharadvaja, Vishvamitra, Vasistha, Vamadeva, Atri and Gritsamada. These were composed in Punjab and the region further east, called Madhyadesa.
The hymns of Rig Veda are addressed to the various deities like Agni, Varuna, Indra etc. praying for favours. They were recited by the priest called Hotri. These hymns represent a beautiful combination of monotheism and polytheism.
The Rig-Veda, apart from being a supreme religious work has also great historical significance in so far ‘it throws flood of light on the political, social and economic life of the Aryans during this, period.
(ii) The Sama Veda Samhita:
The Sama Veda Samhita consists of a collection of 1810 hymns mostly taken from the Rig Veda. These hymns have been so arranged as to be suitable for being sung. They were sung by a particular class of priests known as Udgator.
This collection is an evidence of the love of music prevalent among the early Aryans and shows that their religion was certainly not puritanical. Dr. R. C. Majumdar says that though “the Sama Veda is very important for the history of Indian music and throws interesting light on the growth of sacrificial ceremonies its value as a literary work is practically nil”
(iii) Yajur Veda Samhita:
Yajur Veda is generally called the “Book of Sacrificial Prayers”. A study of this Veda shows that the social life of the Aryans had undergone tremendous change by this time. They were no more simple nature worshipped but had also developed faith in rites and rituals and sacrifices.
The caste system bad also probably been evolved by this time. The Yajur Veda consists of 40 chapters and can be divided into two parts—White Yajur Veda and the Black Yajur Veda.
The main distinction between the White and the Black Yajur Veda is that while the former contains, only the hymns the Black Yajur Veda contains in addition the prose commentaries. The hymns of both the text were recited by the priest known as Adhvaryu at the time of important sacrifices.
(iv) Atharva Veda Samhita:
It is the last of all Samhitas and is also known as Brahma Veda. As a collection of hymns from the historical and scientific point of view, it most resembles the Rig Veda, although it fundamentally differs from the Rig Veda in spirit.
It is divided into 20 books and contains 731 hymns. These hymns mostly deal with charms, and magic spells by which one could overcome demons and enemies. For this reason it was not given the rank of a Veda for a long time. The hymns of Atharvaveda were recited by the priest called Brahman.
2. The Brahman Period:
In the course of time it was realised that it was not possible for the ordinary man to understand the origin and meaning of the various hymns. The meaning of these hymns were, therefore, explained in the form of commentaries. These came to be popularly known as Brahmanas.
The Brahmanas are therefore, massive prose texts which contain speculations on the meaning of the hymns, give precepts for their application, relate stories of their origin in connection with sacrificial rites and explain the secret meaning of the latter. They may very well be called liturgies.
The Aranyakas were really speaking parts of the Brahmanas and contain philosophical portions of the Brahmanas. They were composed mainly for the jungle dwelling hermits. The Aranyakas therefore do not Jay much stress on rites, rituals and sacrifices, but merely contain the philosophy and mysticism.
They deal with the problems of soul, origin and elements of universe and I he creation of the universe. Thus we can construe that proper attention was paid to the spiritual progress during this period. Some of the prominent Aranyakas which are available now are—Aitareya Aranyaka, Sankyhyana Aranyaka, Taittiriya Aranyaka, Maitrayene Aranyaka, Yadhandin Brihad Aranyaka, Talavakara Aranyaka.
The Upanishads are described as philosophical treatise. Hut it would be more appropriate to describe them as mystic writings. They state the conclusions of the Rishis without providing any rational justification for the same.
However, they provide a vivid description of the religious and spiritual thought of the Aryans. There are about 300 Upanishads in all, the most prominent of them being Ish, Prasana, Aitareya, Taittiriya, Chhandogaya, Kathoupanishad etc.
The Upanishads are the chief source of Hindu philosophy. They explain the relation of matter, soul and God. The Doctrine of Karma, salvation and the methods of its attainment have also been spelt out in details in the Upanishads. The Upanishads assert that there is only one Creator, who is true, who is omnipresent and omniscient.
In fact the white Vedic literature would be lifeless without these Upanishads. The great German scholar Max Muller says that “these philosophical treatises will always maintain a place in the literature of the world, among the most outstanding productions of the human mind in any age and in any country.”
According to C. Rajagopalachari, “In the Upanishads we have a scripture which, among all the holy scriptures of the world, displays the most scientific spirit in connection with spiritual enquiry.”
Shaupenheir, another German scholar, has also called the Upanishad philosophy as the most eminent science of spiritual progress. Even from the historical point of view the Upanishads are of immense value because they throw a flood of light on the social, religious and spiritual life of the Aryans.
Upvedas are supplementary Vedas which deal with secular subjects. There are in all four Upvedas, each dealing with a particular branch.
(a) Ayuraveda is the Upveda of Rig-Veda and deals with the sciences of medicine, plants etc. Dhanvantri Ashwani Kumar and Charaka were its chief exponents.
(h) Dhanurveda is the subsidiary Veda of Yajur Veda and deals with the art of archery and warfare.
(c) Gandharvaveda is the subsidiary Veda of Sama Veda and deals with the art of music, both vocal and instrumental, as well as dancing.
(d) Shilpaveda is the subsidiary of Atharva Veda and deals with architecture.
The Vedangas or supplementary science of the Vedas were written mainly to serve as a guide to Vedic texts, rituals and sacrifices. The Vedangas deal mainly with subjects viz. pronunciation, metre, grammar, explanation of words, astronomy and ceremonies.
In all there are six Vedangas or Sastras viz. Siksha (pronunciation), Chhanda (metre), Vyakarna (grammar), Kalpa (ritual), Nirukata (etymology) and Jyotish (astronomy). Of all these Vedangas Kalpa is regarded as the most important.
It deals with the domestic life of the Aryans and is therefore also known as Grihya Sutra. It enumerates the duties to be performed by a man from the time of his cradle to the time of his grave. It also contains ceremonies to be performed at the time of the birth, marriage and death.