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 Indian Vedas & Literature


The Essence of Vedas

'Whence this creation has come into existence, whether He established it or did not; He who is its overseer in the higher firmament, He verily knows or knows not…' – The Rig-Veda (hymns to Prajapati, the creator)

Typical mind game from the subtlest and most profound of all ancient Indian, and indeed world, scriptures. This spirit of questioning is, in many ways, the essence of the Vedas, as also the age when the Aryans were finding their feet in India.

The story goes back a long time. It starts in 1200BC, when the first Aryan immigrants in India started composing the various hymns that are part of the books. They were meant to be mantras (incantations) in praise of various Aryan gods. What they also reflect is a startlingly vivid picture of life, as was being led by the Aryans who came to India. Things move along as they trace the settling down of the Aryans in their new habitat and the various changes that invariably happened in their society.

There are four Vedas:

The Rig-Veda:- The date for the Rig-Veda was in controversy for a long time. The traditional date goes back to 3000BC, something which the German scholar Max Mueller accepted. However, modern historians have now reached a consensus that its oldest parts were written around a more cautious 1200BC.

As a body of writing, the Rig-Veda (the wisdom of verses) is nothing short of remarkable. It contains 1028 hymns dedicated to thirty-three different gods; these gods were, quite expectedly, nature gods. The most often addressed gods are Indra (rain god; king of heavens), Agni (fire god) and Rudra (storm god; the 'howler'). A sizeable chunk of the verses are also dedicated to Soma (the draught of immortality), which was a cool alcoholic brew made from the leaves of the soma plant and was drunk during sacrifices. The identity of the plant itself is subject of furious debate. In nature, however, it was somewhat similar to the brews that the American Indians used to consume before conducting sacrifices – to numb both the sacrificer and the sacrificee although human sacrifice was never a part of Aryan worship.

This oldest religious text in the world has10,589 verses which are divided into ten mandalas or book-sections. The oldest portions of the Rig-Veda are from books two to seven; the others were added later. The book-sections are arranged according to the number of hymns they possess.

The Sama-Veda:- The Sama-Veda or the wisdom of chants is basically a collection of samans or chants, derived from the eighth and ninth books of the 'original Veda', the Rig-Veda. These were meant for the priests who officiated at the rituals of the soma ceremonies – in full sway there could have as many as seventeen full rituals. As time went along rituals and ceremonies of worship became increasingly intricate and the simplicity of the original Rig-Vedic age was slowly forgotten. Thus a need arose to compile all the rituals and their chants in a book, as a sort of reference point for the priests whose functions this Veda clearly puts down.

It is not surprising that the Sama-Veda is better known for the precise meter of its poetry than for its literary content. There are also painstaking instructions in Sama-Veda about how particular hymns must be sung; this is perhaps because great emphasis was put upon sounds of the words of the mantras and the effect they could have on the environment and the person who pronounced them.

The Yajur-Veda:- The Yajur-Veda or the wisdom of sacrifices lays down various sacred invocations (yajurs) which were chanted by a particular sect of priests called adhvaryu. They performed the sacrificial rites. This is very much a ritual based Veda for although there are a few hymns to various Gods the main stress is on the theory of the ritual. The Veda also outlines various chants which should be sung to pray and pay respects to the various instruments which are involved in the sacrifice.

The Atharva-Veda:- The Atharva-Veda (the wisdom of the Atharvans) is called so because the families of the atharvan sect of the Brahmins have traditionally been credited with the composition of the Vedas. It is a compilation of hymns but lacks the awesome grandeur which makes the Rig-Veda such a breathtaking spiritual experience. It is roughly equivalent to the western magic spells and has incantations for everything – from success in love to the realization of otherworldly ambitions.

Indian Literature

The Indian literary tradition is primarily one of verse and is also essentially oral. The earliest works were composed to be sung or recited and were so transmitted for many generations before being written down. As a result, the earliest records of a text may be later by several centuries than the conjectured date of its composition. Furthermore, perhaps because so much Indian literature is either religious or a reworking of familiar stories from the Sanskrit epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and the mythological writings known as Puranas, the authors often remain anonymous. Biographical details of the lives of most of the earlier Indian writers exist only in much later stories and legends.

Other Themes

In medieval Indian literature the earliest works in many of the languages were sectarian, designed to advance or to celebrate some unorthodox regional belief. Examples are the Caryapadas in Bengali, Tantric verses of the 12th century, and the Lilacaritra (circa 1280), in Marathi. In Kannada (Kanarese) from the 10th century, and later in Gujarati from the 13th century, the first truly indigenous works are Jain romances; ostensibly the lives of Jain saints, these are actually popular tales based on Sanskrit and Pali themes. Other example was in Rajasthani of the bardic tales of chivalry and heroic resistance to the first Muslim invasions - such as the 12th-century epic poem Prithiraja-raso by Chand Bardai of Lahore.

Most important of all for later Indian literature were the first traces in the vernacular languages of the northern Indian cults of Krishna and of Rama. Included are the 12th-century poems by Jaydev, called the Gitagovinda (The Cowherd's Song); and about 1400, a group of religious love poems written in Maithili (eastern Hindi of Bihar) by the poet Vidyapati were a seminal influence on the cult of Radha-Krishna in Bengal.

   
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