2.3 Composition of the Rig Vedic Hymns
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Unlike the Indus Valley culture which has left many material artifacts, the Vedic culture did not leave us much archeological evidence. There exist no images of Vedic gods that are older than 5th century B.C.E., roughly the time associated with the rise of Buddhism in south Asia. Our knowledge of the Vedic Aryas is derived primarily from oral hymns composed by their Brahman priests. These hymns were called Vedas. The term Veda means knowledge, or body of knowledge The Vedic hymns were transmitted orally and were preserved in memory by the Brahman priests for a very long period before they were written down (The earliest examples of Indian writing comes from approximately 250 B.C.E. more than a thousand years after the Vedic hymns were composed). Thus, the Vedic hymns presumably circulated orally among the priestly Brahmans (sometimes also spelled as Brahmins) from about 1500-250 B.C.E. The language of the Vedas is called Sanskrit.
Hear a contemporary recording of a Vedic hymn in Sanskrit. The accompanying tune is from recent times.
Due to the oral nature of these compositions, it is extremely hard, if not impossible to date these hymns with any kind of accuracy. As a result, the history of Arya culture is marked by the intellectual developments that are associated with their oral compositions. For example, the oldest era of cultural development is associated with the Vedas, and this era usually extends from 1500-1200 B.C.E. This era is followed by the age of the Upanishadic or Vedantic compositions, dated roughly from 900-500 B.C.E. This way of dating can be problematic as it provides us with no physical evidence of when these hymns were composed, and depends primarily on the circumstantial evidence of changes in ideas and language that may have been taking place in this society between the second and first millenniums B.C.E. Just imagine trying to learn about our own age without help from material artifacts (including books), and simply by tracing the popular ideas of our time. How accurate would it be, for example, to describe 2001 as the age of Harry Potter?
The memory-based system of preserving knowledge led these people to place a great emphasis on their spoken words. Speech, to these people had a divine sanctity, and was revered as the goddess Vac, and according to many scholars the Vedic goddess Vac may be the precursor of the contemporary Hindu goddess of knowledge, Saraswati. The Vedas do not refer to any goddess with the name Saraswati, but ideals that the contemporary goddess Saraswati represents are in many ways similar to those attributed to the Vedic deity Vac. Here, you have an example of the progression of ideas that is associated with the unfolding history of Hinduism.
In addition to hymns extolling the glory of the individual nature gods, Vedic hymns also addressed topics that we today consider secular. Some hymns provide accounts of settlements in the river valleys of east Punjab: region between Yamuna and Sutlej. There are hymns in the Vedic texts that described Indra, the king of their gods, destroying the settlements of some people called the Dasas. Other hymns refer to intertribal rivalries as well as the common solidarity against the “Dasas” or “Dasyus.” Some scholars, especially in the nineteenth and early twentieth century had speculated that such hymns refer to armed conflicts between the newly arrived Aryas and the older inhabitants of the Indus River Valley. There are differences in opinion among scholars on this issue. According to the current assessment of historians and academics, however, the migration of the Aryas into the subcontinent occurred most probably in waves, as settlers gradually moved in to the region through a long period of time, rather than through any decisive armed conflict.
[Recently, there was a colorful controversy on this issue. Some scholars suspected an academic hoax involving the claimed deciphering of the Indus Valley script and its effect on the theory of Aryan immigration. If you are interested in learning about this issue you may want to read the articles “Horseplay in Harappa (go to top result)” and “The Direction in Harappa Writing (go to top result)” at in The Frontline, a popular magazine (comparable perhaps to Time or Newsweek) from India.]
Since the Vedas were the compendium of all knowledge that the Aryas of this period considered useful, the hymns of the Vedas were categorized into four primary groups. The classification of the Vedic hymns was based on the way the hymns functioned within the context of the sacrificial ritual. The four kinds of Vedic hymns were:
- Rig: Hymns recited by the main priest during the formal Srauta ceremony
- Sama: Hymns sung or recited by assistant priests, that provided the musical background during the ceremony
- Yajur: Working formulas that elaborated on the proper ways of performing the rituals
- Atharva: Magical incantations, charms, in addition to sacrificial hymns commonly found in the other three. Atharva Veda is considered the least authoritative of the four.
While the Hindu belief system may have changed significantly from the Vedic times, many of these hymns are still recited in contemporary worship and social ceremonies such as weddings, funerals, etc. This is the process that preserves the continuity of the Hindu religious culture. Also note that these Vedic hymns were composed by different poets and singers through the ages, and therefore the Vedas do not represent any one person's religious belief, but expresses a plurality of spiritual concerns of the Aryas who lived in India between 1500-1000 B.C.E.
Note: The word Arya has a problematic connotation in our times. Read about the misuse of the term “Arya” by Nazis at "Aryan." The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. Answers.com 12 Jun. 2006.
- Horseplay in Harappa: Google search, go to top result (site does not allow directly entering article from here)
- The Direction in Harappa Writing: Google search, go to top result (site does not allow directly entering article from here)