The Vedas of India

The Vedas (Sanskrit वेद véda, “knowledge”) are a large body of texts originating in ancient India. Composed in Vedic Sanskrit, the texts constitute the oldest layer of Sanskrit literature and the oldest scriptures of Hinduism.

The class of “Vedic texts” is aggregated around the four canonical Samhitas or Vedas proper, of which three are related to the performance of sacrifice (yajna) in historical Vedic religion:

  1. The RigVeda, containing hymns to be recited by the Vedic priesthood;
  2. The YajurVeda, containing formulas to be recited by the adhvaryu or officiating priest;
  3. The SamaVeda, containing formulas to be sung by the officiants of the yajna service.

The fourth is the AtharvaVeda, a collection of spells and incantations, apotropaic charms and speculative hymns.

According to Hindu tradition, the Vedas are apauruseya “not of human agency”, are supposed to have been directly revealed, and thus are called shruti (“what is heard”). The four Samhitas are metrical (with the exception of prose commentary interspersed in the Black Yajurveda). The term samhita literally means “composition, compilation”. The individual verses contained in these compilations are known as mantras. Some selected Vedic mantras are still recited at prayers, religious functions and other auspicious occasions in contemporary Hinduism.

The various Indian philosophies and sects have taken differing positions on the Vedas. Schools of Indian philosophy which cite the Vedas as their scriptural authority are classified as “orthodox”. Other traditions, notably Buddhism and Jainism, which did not regard the Vedas as authorities are referred to by traditional Hindu texts as “non-orthodox” schools.

There are four main practices in the Vedic tradition: Vaishnavism, Smartaism, Shaivism and Shaktism.

1. Vaishnavism

Mantra: Om Namo Narayanaya, Hare Krishna

Worship of Vishnu and His various avatars, especially Rama and Krishna, in a profoundly devotional form is the basis of Vaishnavism. Intense devotion to a personal Supreme God, Vishnu through bhakti yoga is the path to perfection. There are four main Vaisnava traditions – Visistadvaita, Dvaita (includes Acintya-bheda-abheda), Suddha-advaita, and Dvaitadvaita. Vaishnavism is followed by majority of people in India.

2. Smartaism

Mantra: Om Namah Sivaya

Smartaism is an ancient brahminical tradition reformed by Adi Shankara. The word smarta means one who follows the smriti or dharma sastras. Smartas follow the smriti literature, particularly dharma shastra, Puranas and the Itihasas. They worship five forms of God and also revere the Vedas and the Agamas. They worship Shiva, Vishnu, Ganapati, Surya and Shakti and this system is called pancayatana (pancopasana). Kumara was further added by Shankara’s reform. Today they are synonymous with Adi Shankara’s monistic, meditative and philosophical theories. The five group system of smartas is there because each deity can be chosen as one’s own personal and preferred deity (ishta devata). Smartas believe in attainment of salvation mainly through jnana yoga. However other yogas like bhakti yoga, karma yoga and raja yoga are recognized as leading to enlightenment. Jnana yoga involves the study of scriptures (shravana), reflection (manana) and sustained meditation (dhyana).

3. Shaiva

Mantra: Om Namah Shivaya

A system of temple mysticism and an enlightened view of man’s place in the universe as well as siddha yoga form the basis of Shaivism. The final goal of Shaivism is realizing one’s identity with Shiva in perfect union and non-differentiation (monism, kevaladvaita) based on advaita philosophy.
The path for Shaivites is divided into four progressive stages of belief and practice called Charya, Kriya, Yoga and Jnana. Union with Shiva comes through the grace of the satguru and culminates in the soul’s maturity in the state of jnana, or wisdom. Shaivism values both bhakti and yoga sadhana.
There are six main sub-groups of Shaivism:

  1. Shaiva siddhanta
  2. Pasupata
  3. Kashmir Shaiva or Trika (tantric)
  4. Vira Shaiva or Lingayata
  5. Siddha Shaiva
  6. Shiva Advaita

Sometimes Lakulisa Saivisms is included as well.

4. Shakta

Mantra: Om Chandikayai Namah

The worship of Mother Goddess in her fierce or gentle form is the basis of Shaktism. Shaktas use mantra, tantra, yantra, yoga and puja to invoke cosmic forces and awaken the kundalini power. They consider the Goddess a manifested form of the deity whose worship leads to the masculine unmanifested form or Shiva, thus attaining salvation.
There are four different expressions:

  1. Devotional
  2. Shamanic
  3. Yogic
  4. Universalist

The devotional Shaktas makes puja rites to invoke Sri Chakra Yantra to establish intimacy with the Goddess. The Shamanic Shaktas – usually with the help of a medium – use magic, tantra and trance as well as fire walking and animal sacrifice for healing, fertility and power. The Shakta yogis seek to awaken the sleeping Goddess Kundalini and unite her with Lord Shiva in the sahasrara chakra. The universalists follow the reformed Vedantic teachings and traditions.

Essence of the Vedas

While contemporary traditions continued to maintain Vedic ritualism (Srauta, Mimamsa), Vedanta renounced all ritualism and radically re-interpreted the notion of “Veda” in purely philosophical terms. The association of the three Vedas with the bhur bhuvah svah mantra is found in the Aitareya Aranyaka: “Bhuh is the Rigveda, bhuvah is the Yajurveda, svah is the Samaveda” (1.3.2). The Upanishads reduce the “essence of the Vedas” further, to the syllable Aum (ॐ). Thus, the Katha Upanishad has:

“The goal, which all Vedas declare, which all austerities aim at, and which humans desire when they live a life of continence, I will tell you briefly it is Aum” (1.2.15)

Want to know more about the meaning of OM? Read the blog post here.