History and Sources

What were the earliest Hindu sacred texts?

A set of sacred scriptures, called the Vedas, consists of four distinct collections of texts, each with its own distinctive purpose. The name Veda comes from a Sanskrit root meaning “wisdom” or “vision,” the same root that gives us English words like “video.” According to tradition, “seers,” called rishis, composed the texts and communicated them orally. The rishis were able to see the truths revealed to them because they were also “hearers” of the sacred word. In fact, Hindu tradition groups the most sacred of its scriptures in the category of “that which is heard” (shruti), to distinguish them from a secondary level of revelation called “that which is remembered” (smriti). The Vedas evolved over a period of centuries, and religious specialists eventually wrote them down in an ancient form of Sanskrit. The earliest and most important of the four scriptures is called the Rig Veda, an anthology of more than a thousand hymns to various deities. A second collection, called the Sama Veda, includes material from the Rig, edited for ease of ritual use according to melodies and poetic meters. In the Yajur Veda, the early priesthood gathered the most important sacred mantras. A final collection of ritual incantations makes up the Atharva Veda. Many of the Vedic hymns are especially beautiful and offer a unique insight into how the early ritual specialists who made up the priesthood sought to understand and affect their world through contact with forces beyond human control.


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