More than four thousand years ago, in ancient India, the first great sadhus, or seers, led their people to a sacred river known as the Sarasvati, which was also the name of their goddess of knowledge. The great seekers then became inspired by their intense meditations, so they started recording that ultimate truth for posterity. To do this the ancient priests and priestesses developed a new written language, thus giving rise to Sanskrit. This allowed them to compose some of the earliest hymns in existence, the stories of which had been told for generations. This had been done for millennia using mnemonic techniques to precisely preserve the material.
The Sanskrit term “Veda” as a common noun means “Knowledge”, with a capital “K”. Furthermore, the Vedas are called “sruti”, meaning “what is heard”. This should be distinguished from other religious texts, which are called “smrti”, meaning “what is remembered”. Hindus consider the Vedas as being “authorless”. According to legend, Vyasa is the compiler of the Vedas, but it’s impossible to know who the real authors are. Granted, the Vedic hymns themselves assert that they were skillfully created by “Rishis”. So, the Vedas are revelations from ancient sages gained after intense meditation, then handed down through the oral tradition until finally being written down.
In total, the masters of Vedism produced four different texts as a result of their mystical revelations. These are the Rigveda, the Samaveda, the Yajurveda, and the Atharvaveda. As part of this, each Veda consists of a few different types of sacred knowledge. There are the Upasanas that deal with worship, the Upanishads which discuss mediation, the Brahmanas that describe rituals, the Aranyakas that detail sacrifices, and the Samhitas which are concerned with benedictions. Together, these make up some of the oldest recorded religious teachings on Earth, dating as far back as 1700 BCE, although the verbal transmission of that vast array of information had existed much longer.
The Rigveda alone is a rich collection of 1,028 hymns and 10,600 verses, that are organized into a 10 volume set. Those were among some of the earliest books ever written, and what they contain says a great deal about our species. As part of this, the eight books that were produced first describe things like the praise of deities. Later, a new first and last volume was added to complete the set. They focus on philosophical concepts about the social virtues of charity, the complex cosmic origins of the universe, and the ultimate nature of the Supreme Being, among other things. Plus, the Rigveda is the oldest extant Indic text.
In the Samaveda, some of the Rigvedic verses are repeated. The Samaveda consists of 1,549 stanzas, divided up into two major parts. The first includes four melody collections and the second part three verse books. The early sections of Samaveda typically begin with hymns to Agni and Indra but shift to the abstract. Their meters shift in descending order. Moreover, the songs in the later sections of the Samaveda have the least deviation from the hymns in the Rigveda. Including repetitions, there are a total of 1,875 verses numbered in the Samaveda recension. Its purpose was liturgical, and they were the repertoire of the singer priests.
The Yajurveda primarily consists of prose mantras. It is a compilation of ritual offering formulas that were said by a priest while an individual performed ritual actions. This includes about 1,875 verses, that are distinct yet borrow and build upon the foundation of verses in the Rigveda. They are linguistically different from earlier Vedic texts. The Yajurveda was the primary source of information about sacrifices during Vedic times. However, it should be understood that the youngest layer of Yajurveda text is not related to rituals nor sacrifice. Instead, it includes the largest collection of primary Upanishads, influential to various schools of Hindu philosophy and theology.
Regardless, the Atharvaveda has about 760 hymns, and about 160 of the hymns are in common with the Rigveda. It was compiled last, probably around 900 BCE. Most of the verses are metrical, but some sections are in prose. As if that wasn’t complicated enough, two different versions of the text have survived into modern times. In fact, the Atharvaveda wasn’t even considered as a Veda in the Vedic era. Nonetheless, the Atharvaveda is sometimes called the “Veda of magical formulas”. The text even includes hymns dealing with the two major rites of passage, namely marriages and funerals. The Atharvaveda also dedicates a significant portion of the text toward asking the meaning of a ritual.
With that being said, given their vast complexity, throughout the last few millennia, various Hindu scholars and Eastern mystics have taken differing positions on the Vedas, thus leading to different interpretations. Regardless, any school of thought which cites the Vedas as a scriptural authority is orthodox and known as “astika”. Meanwhile, non-orthodox traditions such as Buddhism and Jainism do not regard the Vedas in this way. These are known as “nastika” schools. Regardless, the bottom line is that the Vedas definitely stand testament to what the human soul is capable of achieving in the pursuit of spiritual truth and the lengths to which people will go to pass it on.