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The sacred books of ancient India

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Vedas, the sacred books of ancient India. The Sanskrit word veda means “knowledge”, more particularly “sacred book”. In its widest sense the term designates not only the sacred texts, but also the voluminous theological and philosophical literature attached thereto, the Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Upanishads, and Sutras (see Brahminism). But usually the term veda applies only to the four collections (Samhitas) of hymns and prayers composed for different ritualistic purposes: the Rig-Veda, Sama-Veda, Yajur-Veda, and Atharva-Veda. Of these only the first three were originally regarded as canonical; the fourth attained to this position after a long struggle. The language of the Vedas is an artificial literary language fully perfected, and is not a mere popular dialect. In this respect it resembles the later classical Sanskrit, from which it differs considerably in phonology and inflections. Though differences exist in the language of the four Vedas, still there is such agreement on cardinal points as against later Sanskrit that the term Vedic, which is in common use for the oldest form of the language of India, is amply justified.

I. THE RIG-VEDA (“veda of verses”; from tic, or before sonants rig, “laudatory stanza”) is the oldest and most important of these collections. In its present form it contains 1028 hymns (including eleven supplementary ones in the eighth book), arranged in ten mandalas (cycles), or books, which vary in extent, only the first and tenth being approximately equal. The poems themselves are of different authorship and date from widely different periods. According to the generally accepted view the oldest of them dates back to 1500 s. c., when the Aryan conquerors spread over the Punjab in Northern India and occupied the land on both sides of the Indus. The texts themselves show that the collection is the result of the work of generations of poets, extending over many centuries. Books II to VII inclusive are each the work of a single poet, or rishi (seer), and his descendants; hence they are aptly called “family books”. Book III is attributed to the family of Vishvamitra, IV to that of Vamadeva, V to that of Vasishtha. The hymns in books I and X are all composed by different families. The ninth consists exclusively of hymns addressed to Soma, the deified plant, the juice of which was used for the Soma sacrifice. Books II to VII are the oldest, and book X the most recent, in point of origin.

The monotony of the Rig-Veda is due not only to the nature of its mythological content, but also to the fact that hymns to the same deity are usually grouped together. Thus, approximately, 500 hymns are addressed to two gods alone: Indra, the god of lightning and storms, and Agni, the god of fire. The element of nature-worship is a marked feature in most of the hymns, which are invocations of different deities. The value of the great collection as presenting the earliest record of the mythology of an Indo-European people is apparent. Several of the gods go back to the time of Indo-Iranian unity, e.g. Yama (the Avestan Yima), Soma (Haoma), Mitra (the later Persian Mithra). Some of the divinities, especially the higher ones, still exhibit the attributes which enable us to trace their origin to the personification of natural phenomena. Thus Indra personified thunder, Agni fire, Varuna the sea, Surya the sun, Ushas the dawn, the Maruts the storm, and others were of a somewhat similar character. Indra was the favorite god of the Vedic Aryans; almost one fourth of all the hymns in the Rig-Veda are addressed to him and they are among the best in the collection. Next to Indra stands Agni. The hymns in his praise are often obscure in thought and turgid in phraseology and abound in allusions to a complicated ritual. Many hymns are in honor of Soma. Other gods invoked are the two Ashins, somewhat resembling the Dioscuri of ancient Greece, the terrible Rudra, Parjanya the rain-god, Vayu the wind-god, Surya the sun-god, Pushan the protector of roads and stray kine. Prayers are also addressed to groups of divinities like the Adityas and the Vishve Devils (all the gods). Only a few hymns sing the praise of Vishnu and of Shiva in his earlier form as Rudra, though these two deities became later the chief gods of the Hindu pantheon. Goddesses play a small part, only Ushas, the goddess of dawn, has some twenty hymns in her honor; these poems are of exceptional literary merit.

The number of secular hymns is small, but many of them are of particular interest. They are of various content. In one (book X, 34) a gambler laments his ill luck at dice and deplores the evil passion that holds him in its grasp. In the same book (X, 18) there occurs a funeral hymn, from which important information may be gained concerning the funeral rites of the Vedic age. Evidently cremation was most in vogue, though burial was also resorted to. There are also some riddles and incantations or prayers exactly like those in the Atharva-Veda. Historical references are occasionally found in the so-called danastutis (praises of gifts), which in most cases are not independent poems, but laudatory stanzas appended to some ordinary hymn, and in which the poet gives thanks for generosity shown to him by some prince. Some six or seven hymns deal with cosmogonic speculations. It is significant that some of the hymns, chiefly in book X, are cast in the form of a dialogue. Here we may possibly discern the beginnings of the Sanskrit drama. The poetry of the Rig-Veda is neither popular nor primitive, as it has been erroneously considered, but is the production of a refined sacerdotal class and the result of a long period of cultural development. It was intended primarily for use in connection with the Soma sacrifice, and to accompany a ritual, which, though not so complicated as at the time of the Brahmanas, was far from simple. The Rig-Veda has come down to us in only one recension, that of the Shakala school. Originally there were several schools: the “Mahabhashya” (great commentary), about the second century B.C., knows of twenty-one, while some later writings know of two only. In these schools the transmission of the hymns was most carefully attended to; a most elaborate mnemonic system was devised to guard against any changes in the sacred text, which has thus come down to us practically without variants.

Editions of the Rig-Veda were published by Max Muller, “Rig-Veda-Samhita with the Commentary of Sayanacharya” (6 vols., London, 1849-74; 2nd ed., 4 vols., 1890-95); “The Hymns of the Rig-Veda in the Samhita and Pada Texts” (2nd ed., 2 vols., London, 1877); Aufrecht, “Samhita Text”, in Roman characters (2nd ed., Bonn, 1877); selections in Lanman’s “Sanskrit Reader” (Boston, 1884); Bothlingk, “Sanskrit-Chrestomathie” (3rd ed., Leipzig, 1897); Windisch, “Zwolf Hymnen des Rig-Veda”, with Sayana’s commentary (Leipzig, 1883). Translations were made into: English verse by Griffith (2 vols., Benares, 1896-97); selections in prose by Max Muller in “Sacred Books of the East”, XXXII (Oxford, 1891); continued by Oldenburg, ibidem, XLVI (1897); German verse by Grassmann (2 vols., Leipzig, 1876-77); German prose by Ludwig (6 vols., Prague, 1876-88). On the Rig-Veda in general see: Kaegi, “The Rig-Veda”, tr. Arrowsmith (Boston, 1886); Oldenberg, “Rig-Veda”, books I-VVI, in “Gottinger Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften”, new series, XI (Berlin, 1909).

THE SAMA-VEDA (“veda of chants”) consists of 1549 stanzas, taken entirely (except 75) from the Rig-Veda, chiefly from books VIII and IX. Its purpose was purely practical, to serve as a textbook for the udgatar or priest who attended the Soma sacrifice. The arrangement of the verses is determined solely by their relation to the rites attending this function. The hymns were to be sung according to certain fixed melodies; hence the name of the collection. Though only two recensions are known, the number of schools for this veda is known to have been very large. The Sama-Veda was edited: (with German tr.) by Benfey (Leipzig, 1848); by Satyavrata Samashrami in Bibl. Ind. (Calcutta, 1873); Engl. tr. by Griffith (Benares, 1893).

THE YAJUR-VEDA (“veda of sacrificial prayers”) consists also largely of verses borrowed from the Rig-Veda. Its purpose was also practical, but, unlike the Sama-Veda, it was compiled to apply to the entire sacrificial rite, not merely the Soma offering. There are two recensions of this Veda known as the “Black” and “White” Yajur-Veda. The origin and meaning of these designations are not clear. The White Yajur-Veda contains only the verses and sayings necessary for the sacrifice, while all explanations exist in a separate work; the Black incorporates explanations and directions in the work itself, often immediately following the verses. Of the Black there are again four recensions, all showing the same arrangement, but differing in many other respects, notably in matters of phonology and accent. By the Hindus the Yajur-Veda was regarded as the most important of all the Vedas for the practice of the sacrificial rites. The four recensions of the Yajur-Veda have been separately edited: (I) “Vajasaneyi Samhita” by Weber (London and Berlin, 1852), tr. Griffith (Benares, 1899); (2) “Taittiriya S.” by Weber in “Indische Studien”, XI, XII (Berlin, 1871-72); (3) “Maitrayani S.” by von Schroeder (Leipzig, 1881-86); “Kathaka S.” by von Schroeder (Leipzig, 1900-09).

THE ATHARVA-VEDA (“veda of the atharvans or fire priests”) differs widely from the other Vedas in that it is not essentially religious in character and not connected with the ritual of the Soma sacrifice. It consists chiefly of a variety of spells and incantations, intended to curse as well as to bless. There are charms against enemies, demons, wizards, harmful animals like snakes, against sickness of man or beast, against the oppressors of Brahmans. But there are also charms of a positive character to obtain benefits, to insure love, happy family-life, health and longevity, protection on journeys, even luck in gambling. Superstitions from primitive ages were evidently current among the masses. To some of the spells remarkably close parallels can be adduced from Germanic and Slavic antiquity. The Atharva-Veda is preserved in two recensions, which, though differing in content and arrangement, are of equal extent, comprising 730 hymns and about 6000 stanzas, distributed in twenty books. Many of the verses are taken from the Rig-Veda without change; a considerable part of the sayings is in prose. The books are of different age; the first thirteen are the oldest, the last two are late additions. Book XX, consisting entirely of hymns in praise of Indra, all taken from the Rig-Veda, was undoubtedly added to give the Atharva a connection with the sacrificial ceremonial and thus to insure its recognition as a canonical book. But this recognition was attained only after a considerable lapse of time, and after the period of the Rig-Veda. In the “Mahabharata” the canonical character of the Atharva is distinctly recognized, references to the four Vedas being frequent. Though as a whole this collection must have come into existence later than the Rig-Veda, much of its material is fully as old and perhaps older. For the history of religion and civilization it is a document of priceless value. The Atharva-Veda has been edited by Roth and Whitney (Berlin, 1856); Engl. tr. in verse by Griffith (2 vols., Benares, 1897); prose by Bloomfield in “Sacred Books of the East”, XLII; by Whitney, revised by Lanman (2 vols., Cambridge, Mass., 1905). Consult Bloom-field, “The Atharvaveda” in “Grundriss der Indoarischen Philologie”, II (Strasburg, 1899).


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