From Hindupedia, the Hindu Encyclopedia

By Shankara Bharadwaj Khandavalli

Veda is the highest authority in Hindu knowledge system and the authority of all other scriptures are based on the authority of the Veda. Vedas are four - Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva. Rigveda contains prayers to Gods (Riks are the mantras). Yajurveda has methods to use Riks for sacrifices (Yajus-Yajna). Sama Veda introduces musical notes. Atharva Veda gives ways to make life successful, and contains methods to fulfill what can be called material aspirations.

Each Veda has three sections - Samhita, Brahmana and Aranyaka. Samhita has prayers or Suktas. Brahmana has sacrificial methods. Aranyaka has Mantras and methods that are practiced in the forests (that is, not for grhasthas). Upanishads normally appear in the last part of Aranyaka and deal with spiritual philosophy. Some Upanishads are exceptions and appear in Samhita and Brahmana too. Thus Upanishad, as it appears in the last part of the Veda, is called Vedanta. There are 108 Upanishads and 10 of them are famous. Since Upanishads mostly philosophical they are found in prose. But there are Upanishads like Taittireeya and Ganapathi Atharva Seersha that have svara.

These four sections are mapped to the four Ashramas. A brahmacari is supposed to study the Samhita. Grhastha is supposed to follow the Brahmana. Vanaprasthi is supposed to follow Aranyaka. Sanyasi is supposed to contemplate on the Upanishads.

The Rigveda itself indicates that Truth is one - "ekam sad vipra bahudha vadanti agnim yamam matariswanam ahuh"[1] (meaning Truth is one, but the learned refer to it in different names like agni, yama, matariswan). But the concept that there is a single Parabrahman and that all Gods are Its forms, is more clearly visible towards the Vedanta (Upanishads). Its implications can be seen in later sections, especially when we discuss Darshanas and Puranas.

Veda literally means knowledge. Traditionally the following features are attributed to the Veda:

  1. Veda is anantha (infinite). Only an infinitesimal portion of it is revealed to humans. This can be understood in the sense that knowledge is infinite. However, Veda is the knowledge of Brahman, the True, Absolute and the Infinite. And the essence of Veda is said to be understood if one knows the infinite, i.e., opens up to the infinite Self. Realizing the infinite through any single mantra/sukta of the Veda is equivalent to understanding the essence of any other mantra and the entire Veda. Thus it is said know the One (Brahman) by which everything else is known.
  2. Veda is anadi, having no beginning or end. It said to exist eternally; it is called the breath of Paramatma. This is a poetic expression, this does not literally mean paramatma has a breath but just the way breath exists with a person's life similarly veda exists with God/creation. While the modern view is that Rigveda is the oldest, it is only in compilation that it is possibly older. Rigveda itself mentions Yajurveda and Samaveda. For instance Purusha sukta (RV 10.90) says "Tasmaat yagnaat sarva hutaH, RucaH-samaani jagnire, chandaagmsi jagnire tasmaat, yajus tasmaadajaayata".
  3. Veda is apourusheya, not authored by humans. The seers are said to reveal veda mantras to the world, they are called drastas. Rigveda says "catvari vak parimita padani tani vidur brahmana ye minishinah, guha trini nihita neengayanti turiyam vaco manushya vadanti"[2], meaning vak exists in four forms and the learned know of them. Three are hidden and the fourth is what men speak. Vak (literally word, but meaning veda mantra here) is said to exist in four forms - para, pasyanti, madhyama and vaikhari. Para is the eternal form of vak. Pasyanti is when a seer envisions the mantra. Madhyama is when it descends into mind plane. Vaikhari is the expression. Thus the Veda mantras exist eternally, they are only revealed to the world by the seers.

Though there are four Vedas, there are alternate recitations in each Veda. These are called "pathantaram"s. Based on these, various branches exist in each Veda, each of them is called a Veda sakha.

There are various methods of chanting the Veda, like ghana and jata.


The mantras in Rigveda are called Riks. Rigveda has 10 mandalas, 1028 suktas and 10170 riks in the whole. Each sukta is a collection of riks on a devata and each mandala has many suktas. The samhita portion of Rigveda contains suktas alone and all suktas are addressed to devatas like Agni, Vayu, Vishnu, Rudra, Mitra, Varuna, Pushan, Aryaman.

The major Upanishads found in Rigveda sakhas are Aitareya and Kaushitaki.


As the name suggests, Yajurveda deals with Yajna, sacrifice. It applies riks and gives procedures and mantras for sacrifices.

There are two major sakhas in the Yajurveda, Sukla and Krishna. Krishna Yajurveda sakha is also called Taittireeya sakha. Samhita of Sukla Yajurveda is called Vajasaneya samhita and that of Krishna Yajurveda is called Taittireeya samhita. Brahmana of Sukla Yajurveda is called the Satapatha brahmana. In the Krishna Yajurveda, there is an overlap between samhita and brahmana portions and lays down the procedures for sacrifices. This can be understood in the light of the fact that brahmana is the sacrificial code and Yajurveda combines this with riks. Many sacrifices like Darsapurnamasa, Vajapeya, Somayaga, and Aswamedha are found in Yajurveda.

There is a special place for lord Rudra in the Krishna Yajurveda, and Rudra suktam is found in the middle of Taittireeya Samhita. It has 7 kandas and the fourth kanda has 9 chapters. Namakam is the 5th chapter and while Chamakam 7th chapter of the fourth kanda. This is because Rudra is the presiding deity of Yajnas and Yajurveda deals with Yajnas.

The major Upanishads found in Yajurveda are Brihadaranyaka, Maitri, Isa, Taittiriya, Svetasvatara and Katha.


Samaveda puts the riks in musical notes. The musical notes in samaveda are said to be the origin of traditional musical octet.

Major Upanishads found in Samaveda are Kena and Chandogya.


Atharvaveda, apart from hymns to gods, gives many ways to make life successful. While Gayatri mantra is said to be the essence of the three Vedas (Rig, Yajur and Sama), there is a different Gayatri mantra for Atharvaveda. And it requires that a second Upanayana is done for the pupil before he is initiated to learning Atharvaveda. (Another brahmopadesam of Atharva Gayatri is done here).

Atharvaveda contains prayers to Gods not mentioned in the other three Vedas, like Pratyangira. Atharvaveda also uses many Riks. For instance, the Manyu sukta of Rigveda appears as two chapters "sena nireekshana" and "sena samyojana" in the Atharvaveda.

Major Upanishads in Atharvaveda are Mandukya, Mundaka and Prasna.

Buddhist and Jain views

Buddhism and Jainism do not reject the Vedas, but merely their absolute authority as shown below.

Vedas to Buddhism

Buddhism does not deny that the Vedas in their true origin were sacred but it holds that they have been amended repeatedly by certain Brahmins to secure their positions in society. The Buddha declared that the Veda in its true form was declared by Kashyapa to certain rishis, who by severe penances had acquired the power to see by divine eyes.[3] In the Buddhist Vinaya Pitaka of the Mahavagga (I.245)[4] section the Buddha names these rishis, and declared the Vedic rishis "Atthako, Vâmako, Vâmadevo, Vessâmitto, Yamataggi, Angiraso, Bhâradvâjo, Vâsettho, Kassapo, and Bhagu"[5] but that it was altered by a few Brahmins who introduced animal sacrifices. The Vinaya Pitaka's section Anguttara Nikaya: Panchaka Nipata says that it was on this alteration of the true Veda that the Buddha refused to pay respect to the Vedas of his time.[6]

Also in the "Brahmana Dhammika Sutta" (II,7)[7] of the Suttanipata section of Vinaya Pitaka[8] there is a story of when the Buddha was in Jetavana village and there were a group of elderly Brahmin ascetics who sat down next to the Buddha and a conversation began.

The elderly Brahmins asked him, "Do the present Brahmans follow the same rules, practice the same rites, as those in the more ancient times?"
The Buddha replied, "No."
The elderly Brahmins asked the Buddha that if it were not inconvenient for him, that he would tell them of the Brahmana Dharma of the previous generation.
The Buddha replied: "There were formerly rishis, men who had subdued all passion by the keeping of the sila precepts and the leading of a pure life...Their riches and possessions consisted in the study of the Veda and their treasure was a life free from all evil...The Brahmans, for a time, continued to do right and received in alms rice, seats, clothes, and oil, though they did not ask for them. The animals that were given they did not kill; but they procured useful medicaments from the cows, regarding them as friends and relatives, whose products give strength, beauty and health."

So in this passage also the Buddha describes when the Brahmins were studying the Veda but the animal sacrifice customs had not yet began.

In the Mahavagga,[9] the Buddha declares:

The one who annihilates the sins in himself,
who is not proud, who is passionless, whose spirit is humble,
who has comprehended the Vedas and is chaste,
for whom no joy exists in the world,:
that one is lawfully called a brahman.

The Buddha was declared to have been born a Brahmin trained in the Vedas and its philosophies in a number of his previous lives according to Buddhist scriptures. Other Buddhas too were said to have been born as Brahmins that were trained in the Vedas.

The Mahasupina Jataka[10] and Lohakumbhi Jataka[11] declares that Brahmin Sariputra in a previous life was a Brahmin that prevented animal sacrifice by declaring that animal sacrifice was actually against the Vedas.

Further, the Suttanipata 1000 declares that 32 mahapurusha lakshana (auspicious symbols of the Buddha) that Buddhism uses, are declared in the Vedic mantras.[12] Brahmayu was a well-versed Vedic follower of the Buddha who by reading the four Vedas saw that the Buddha was auspicious as per his 32 symbols.[13]

Vedas to Jainism

Some historical Jain scholars have believed the Vedas actually represent metaphorical sacrifices (a claim which the Upanishads also endorse!) In this view, the sacrifices are seen as proper human behavior to destroy desire. The Uttaradhyayana Sutra outlines the story of Jayagosha confronting a staunch orthodox Vedic sage and when the sage asks Jayagosha to tell him the meaning of Vedas, the latter supplies the Jain view. Uttaradhyayana Sutra, Chapter 25

Orthodox Vedic Sage: Tell us the most essential subject in the Vedas, and tell us what is most essential in the sacrifice; tell us the first of the heavenly bodies, and tell us the best of dharmas. (14)
Jayagosha: The most essential subject in the Vedas is the agnihotra, and that of the sacrifice is the purpose of the sacrifice; the first of the heavenly bodies is the moon, and the best of dharmas is that of Kashyapa (e.g., Rishabha). (15)
Jayagosha: The beautiful (gods) with joined hands praise and worship the highest Lord (i.e. the Tirthankara) as the planets, &c., (praise) the moon. (16)

According to the Dipika commentary of Uttaradhyayana Sutra by Harshakula, the "sacrifice" here means the ten virtues: truth, penance, content, patience, right conduct, simplicity, faith, constancy, not injuring anything, and Samvara.

In another scripture, a Jain sage intereprets the Vedic sacrifices as metaphorical:

"Body is the altar, mind is the fire blazing with the ghee of knowledge and burning the sacrificial sticks of impurities produced from the tree of karma;..."[14]

Further, Jain Sage Jinabhadra in his Visesavasyakabhasya cites a number of passages from the Vedic Upanishads.[15]

Jain are in conformity with the Vedas in reference to both the Vedas' and Jainism' acceptance of the 22 Tirthankaras:

Of Rishabha (1st Tirthankara Rishabha) is written:
"But Risabha went on, unperturbed by anything till he became sin-free like a conch that takes no black dot, without obstruction ... which is the epithet of the First World-teacher, may become the destroyer of enemies" (Rig Veda X.166)
Of Aristanemi (Tirthankara Neminatha) is written:
"So asmakam Aristanemi svaha Arhan vibharsi sayakani dhanvarhanistam yajatam visvarupam arhannidam dayase" (Astak 2, Varga 7, Rig Veda)

Other sectarian views

Shaiva scriptures such as the Periya Puranam state that the chief principal of the Vedas is Shiva.[16]


  1. Rigveda Samhita 1.164.46
  2. Rigveda Samhita 1.164.45
  3. P. 177 The sacred books of the Buddhists compared with history and modern science By Robert Spence Hardy
  4. P. 494 The Pali-English dictionary By Thomas William Rhys Davids, William Stede
  5. P. 245 The Vinaya piṭakaṃ: one of the principle Buddhist holy scriptures ..., Volume 1 edited by Hermann Oldenberg
  6. P. 44 The legends and theories of the Buddhists, compared with history and science By Robert Spence Hardy
  7. P. 94 A history of Indian literature, Volume 2 by Moriz Winternitz
  8. P. 45-46 The legends and theories of the Buddhists, compared with history and science By Robert Spence Hardy
  9. P. xxx, Pāli grammar: a phonetic and morphological sketch of the Pāli language, with an introductory essay on its form and character By Ivan Pavlovich Minaev
  10. P. 577 Dictionary of Pali Proper Names: Pali-English By G.P. Malalasekera
  11. P. 30 The Jataka or Stories of the Buddha's Former Births By E. B. Cowell
  12. P. 121 The Buddha Image: Its Origin and Development By Yuvraj Krishan
  13. P. 371 Manual of Buddhism 1853 By R. Spence Hardy
  14. P. 92 Studies in Jain literature by Vaman Mahadeo Kulkarni, Śreshṭhī Kastūrabhāī Lālabhāī Smāraka Nidhi
  15. P. 93 Studies in Jain literature by Vaman Mahadeo Kulkarni, Śreshṭhī Kastūrabhāī Lālabhāī Smāraka Nidhi
  16. Periya Puranam: A Tamil Classic On the Great Saiva Saints of South India By Swami Sekkizhaar

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