Notes on the canonical śruti literature (Part 1)
There are four Vedas:
1. The Ṛgveda: consisting mostly in hymns to the deities.
2. The Sāmaveda: more liturgical hymns, many derived from the Ṛgveda.
3. The Yajurveda: liturgy for the performance of ritual sacrifices.
4. The Atharvaveda: consisting mostly in formulas to counteract evil and disease; and other practical teachings.
Each Veda is divided into four parts, according roughly to the order of composition. These are:
A. The Saṃhita: literally, 'collection'; the collected hymns that are chanted by an officiating priest at a Hindu ritual.
B. The Brāhmaṇas: commentaries on the hymns, explaining the rules for the proper performance of rituals.
C. The Āraṇyakas: literally, the 'forest writings', continuing in the style of the Brāhmaṇas and outlining the rules for the proper performance of sacrifices.
D. The Upaniṣads: literally, upa-, 'near' + ni-, 'down' + sad, 'to sit' = 'sitting down next to'. The philosophical elaboration of the content of the Vedas. The end of the Vedas and the basis of the Vedānta (from veda + anta, 'end').
Each of A-D includes several, individually named works. Thus for example we have the Chandogya Upaniṣad, which is sāmavedic, or one of the Upaniṣads of the Sāmaveda. It would be no small feat to learn the names of all of these works, let alone to master their content! But it is important to at least be familiar with the structure and immensity of the śruti corpus.
The Ṛgveda is the oldest of the four Vedas. The Saṃhita component consists in hymns, divided into ten cycles or Mandalas. These are of varying length, but there are 1028 hymns in total.
The Mandalas were composed at different times (and likely by different authors, over the course of several centuries in the second millennium BCE. The order in which we have them today is likely not the original order of their appearance. The oldest extant manuscript dates only to the mid-15th century CE.
Each of the Mandalas consists in humns that are principally addressed to one or two gods or groups of gods. These include a number of personified natural forces and entities, which would become largely archaic in the later development of Hinduism. The important ones to remember are:
- Agni: god of fire and receiver of sacrifices.
- The Aśvins: twin horsemen representing sunrise and sunset.
- The Adityas: 'solar-class deities', sons of Aditi. There are seven in all, including:
- Mitrā: divinity associated with loyalty and friendship.
- Varuṇa: protector of Ṛta, associated with water and the celestial elements.
- Indra: lord of heaven, god of war.
The important divinities that are more straightforwardly the personification of natural elements or principles of reality include:
- Āpas: the Waters
- Pṛthivī: the Earth
- Soma: a ritually consumed plant (taxonomy disputed)
- Sūrya: the Sun
- Vāc: the Word, Speech, Voice
One noteworthy divinity of this class, given its relation to Indo-European cognates such as theos and Deus, is Dyauṣ Pitā: the Latin equivalent would be Deus Pater, i.e., 'Sky Father'. The consort of Pṛthivī (also known as Pṛthivī Mātṛ, 'Earth Mother').
Ātman -- आत्मन् -- 'Breath'; the substrate of the individual self; individual reality (identical with brahman in Advaita Vedanta).
Brahmā -- ब्रह्मा -- God of creation.
Brahman -- ब्रह्मन् -- Ultimate reality; cosmic whole; objective reality; the world.
Brāhmaṇas -- ब्राह्मणम् -- Part of the Vedas, following the Saṃhitas and preceding the
Āraṇyakas and the Upaniṣads, consisting in prose treatises describing
the significance of sacrificial rites.
Brahmin (this is an Anglicized, though accepted form; the Sanskrit is 'brāhmaṇa')-- ब्राह्मण -- Member of the highest, priestly caste of Indian society.
Dharma -- धर्म -- Law, natural law; merit, righteousness; duty, goal. From verbal root dhṛ-, 'to establish, uphold'.
Guṇa -- गुण -- Quality, property, kind; literally, 'thread'.
Īśvara -- ीश्वर -- God, lord, supreme being.
Karma -- कर्म -- Action, deed (from verbal root kṛ-, 'to do', thus karma : kṛ- :: deed : to do);
rite; cause and effect; the accumulated effect of past deeds.
Prakṛti -- प्रकृति -- Nature; the primordial creatrix; that from which qualities come.
Ṛta -- ऋतं -- Law, order; truth; what is naturally right.