The Parts of the Vedas
In simple terms, the Vedas are the compilation of the mantras or the hymns. The word ‘mantra’ originates from the Sanskrit word ‘manan’ which suggests ‘thinking’, ‘pondering’ or ‘contemplating’. Most of the mantras are in the form of the metered verse.
Originally, the Vedas were not in a written form. In the early years, they were chanted orally. For centuries together, they were transmitted orally to the successive generations. They have been preserved by accurate verbal transmission in the Guru-Shishya tradition and are passed from a generation to the next one. The Vedas acquired the written form hundreds of centuries later.
In order to study the Vedas in details, six shastras are helpful. These shastras are known as the Vedangas. The six Vedangas are: Shiksha, Kalp, Vyakaran, Nirukta, Jyotish and Chhanda.
The Vedas are voluminous literary work. In the formative phases, they have never had been in written form. The scholars differ on the issue of “parts” or the "sections" of the Vedas.
In the opinion of some scholars, the Vedas are constituted of two parts: The Samhitas and the Brahmanas. Other scholars opine that each of the Vedas is divided into four parts (or the sections): the Samhitas, the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas and the Upanishads.
The Samhitas and the Brahmanas form the Karma-Kanda segment of the Vedas. They are apparently concerned with the ceremonial rites and rituals. The Aranyakas and the Upanishads form the Gyan-Kanda segment of the Vedas. They explicitly focus on the philosophy and spiritualism.
The Samhitas form the first part of each of the Vedas. A Samhita is a collection of mantras, so the Samhitas are sometimes also referred to as the ‘mantras’. Most of the mantras or hymns were concerned with the nature and the deities. The ancient man worshipped the elements of nature as deities though it is believed that these deities are symbolic.
Generally, the mantras are addressed to the Gods and Goddesses. Some Western scholars believe that the Vedic man used the mantras in sacrificial ceremonies and for performing mystic rituals. This may be true for a number of mantras. Apparently, many mantras or hymns were meant for devotional or ceremonial purposes. In fact, they seem to be symbolic and need exceptional scholastic efforts to decipher them.
Swami Dayananda Saraswati made extraordinary efforts to bring out the significance of the mantras of the Vedas. Shri Aurobindo also challenged the Western philosophers and opined that the mantras are found to express esoteric truths which the Westerners can not grasp. He strove hard to elucidate the cryptic meanings of the Vedic words and the hymns.
The Samhitas are named after the Vedas they belong to. For example, the Samhita of the Rig Veda is called the Rig-Veda-Samhita or the Rig-Samhita.
The Rig-Samhita contains the mantras or the hymns known as ‘richas’. These hymns are metered verses. The Sam-Samhita contains mantras in the form of songs meant for liturgy or public worship. The Yajur-Samhita contains verities of mantras composed in the poetical and the prose forms. The Atharva-Samhita contains mantras meant for routine rites and rituals.
The Brahmanas constitute the second part of the Vedas.
With the passage of time, the newer generations found the mantras of the Samhitas difficult to understand. An elaborate explanation of the mantras became necessary. The result was the Brahmanas. The Brahmanas are explanatory in nature.
The Brahmanas, the second part of the Vedas, are mostly in prose. The word ‘Brahmana’ has its root in the word ‘brahman’ which means ‘prayer’ or ‘devotion’. The word ‘brahman’ is distinct from the word ‘Brahman’ which means ‘the immanent Power’. The Brahmanas hint at ‘the magic’ or ‘the secret power’ of the sacrificial rituals.
The Brahmanas are concerned with the religious rites and rituals. But their covert meanings often baffle the researchers. The Indian scholars differ from their Western counterparts.
The Rig Veda has two Brahmanas – Aitereya Brahmana and Shankhayana Brahmana.
The Shat-Patha Brahmana of Yajur Veda is the largest of all the Brahmanas of all the Vedas.
The Aranyakas form the third part of the Vedas. However, it should be noted that the Aranyakas are sometimes considered as parts of the Brahmanas.
The Sanskrit word ‘aranya’ means a forest.
The Aranyakas were developed by the hermits, living in the forests. Due to the limited resources in the forests, they could not perform the conventional sacrifices, nor could they adhere to the rituals. It was then that the Aranyakas were developed.
With the advent of the Aranyakas, the emphasis on the sacrificial rites seems to be diluting. The shift towards philosophic and spiritual interpretation of the rituals and ceremonials is evident.
The Aranyakas reflect an explicit transition in the philosophy of life of man. The speculative and intuitive thinking seems to be developing. Meditative thinking is conspicuous. The Vedic man seems to be turning from the gross to the subtle. His quest for knowledge seems to be intensified.
The Upanishads are the concluding portions of the Vedas. The Upanishads are at the end of the Vedas.
The Upanishads are referred to as the Vedanta. The word Vedanta is a compound word made up of two Sanskrit words: ‘Veda’ and ‘Anta’. The word ‘anta’ means an end. The Vedanta essentially refers to the philosophy pronounced in the Upanishads, the final parts of the Vedas. The Vedanta broadly covers the philosophy enunciated by the holy Scriptural Trinity – the Upanishads, the Brahma-Sutra and the Bhagavad Gita.
Some scholars consider the Upanishads as the extended portions of the Aranyakas or the Brahmanas. For e.g., Brihdaranyaka Upanishad is considered to be the final chapter of the Shat-Patha Brahmana. Some scholars treat the Vedas and the Upanishads altogether separately.
The word ‘Upanishad’ is derived from the Sanskrit root Sad. The Sanskrit verb sad refers to the knowledge or the satya. The words ‘upa’ + ‘ni’ suggests ‘sitting (before someone) with a determination’. The word ‘Upanishad’ can be understood as: To sit near (close to) a guru with an objective to acquire knowledge.
Most of the Upanishads are in forms of dialogues between a master and a disciple. In Upanishads, a seeker raises a topic and the enlightened guru satisfies the query aptly and convincingly. Thus, the Upanishads contain the sublime knowledge that deals with the topic at great depth. The Upanishads enrich the human mind immensely as they discuss the Brahman, the atman, the existence, life and death, moksha(mukti), the jagat, the knowledge (the para-vidya and the apara-vidya), the Brahma-gyana (or the atma-gyana) and many other related issues elaborately.
It is not known how many Upanishads existed originally. We do not know who composed them. Some of the Upanishads are in the prose form and some others in the verse form. Some of them are partly composed in prose and partly in verse. Some of the Upanishads have been composed in recent times. It is difficult to ascertain the precise number of the original, ancient Upanishads. One hundred and eight Upanishads are believed to belong to the ancient times. Of the 108 Upanishads, ten Upanishads are considered exquisite by distinguished scholars.
The ten outstanding Upanishads are:
Isha, Kena, Katha, Prashna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Chhandogya, Brahadaranyaka, Aitereya and Taitteriya.
Some scholars also attach due importance to Shvetashvatara and Maitri. Some others opine that even Kautishaki is equally valuable.
It is believed that the Rig Veda has 10 Upanishads. The number of Upanishads for Shukla Yajur Veda is 19, for Krishna Yajur Veda 32 and for Sama Veda it is 16. Atharva Veda has 31 Upanishads.
Aiteriya Upanishad is associated with Rig Veda. Kena Upanishad is associated with Sama Veda.
Isha Upanishad is a part of Shukla Yajur Veda. Katha Upanishad is associated with Krishna Yajur Veda.
Prashna Upanishad is associated with Atharva Veda.
The most exalted Rishis and the enlightened celebrities have contributed to the Upanishads. Some of them are Maharshi Yagnavalkya, Rajarshi Janak, Mandukya Muni, Pippalad Muni etc. Maharshi Yagnavalkya contributed significantly to the Brahadaranyaka Upanishad.