Shruti – The 4 Vedas

Origin of Vedas

The Vedas (inclusive of Upanishads or Vedanta) are the foremost reference scriptures of Hinduism.

The 4 Vedas (Rig, Yajur, Sama & Atharva vedas) are the original source of all knowledge and they are not attributed to any specific authors or messiahs. They are considered as originating from God, heard and registered by great rishes (seers) of the yore. Hence they are known as Shruti (as heard). Vedas are also known as apaurusheya (not made of man).

Even though certain hymns and mantras are attributed to certain Rishis in the vedic texts, they are recognized as the seers (mantra Drishta) of those texts and not the authors of the texts. According to Kanchi Paramacharya (Sri Chandresekharendra Saraswathi) it is akin to Columbus identifying America — he is not the creator of America.

It is said in Hindu Puranas that Veda was originally one, but in Dwapara Yuga, Veda Vyasa (Krishna Dwaipayana Vyasa), (who is considered an Avatar of Vishnu) split it into four; he did so for the sake of bringing Vedas to logical groups, convenient for transmitting in written form (from the practice of verbal transmission only prevailing in earlier yugas).

Each Veda is broadly said to contain two major parts — the Karma Kandam and the Jnana Kandam. The Karma Kandam deals with mantras and procedural rituals and the Jnana Kandam contains the supreme wisdom — the Upanishads (or Vedanta — The culmination of Veda). While the ritualistic parts got diluted  over the period of time, the Upanishads, the quintessence of Vedic knowledge lives on and they form the basic source of reference for all the supreme philosophies of Hinduism. They serve as guides for earnest seekers and also as reference books for comparing the experiences attained after practice of the spiritual disciplines.

The term ‘shruti’ carries considerable significance because in times of yonder, there was no practice of writing the vedas in scripts, but were only transmitted by chanting and listening from one generation to another.

Proper Chanting essential

Vedas carry significance not only in their contents, but also in the right pronunciation and  intonations with which the chanting of the mantras are to be carried out. The Vedic mantras carry subtle vibrations and these vibrations were essential to invoke the Gods of nature and get their blessings. The rishis did not want to allow any change in the contents of the Vedas nor in the way they were to be chanted; hence they devised extremely systematic and strict procedures and guidelines for chanting as well as teaching them.

Only Brahmins were allowed to propagate Vedas because extreme austerities involving physical and mental purity, sacrifice, simple living, intellectual capacity, memory capacity,  devotion to God and ability to handle an extremely difficult language of Sanskrit etc were fundamentally essential for the task. Brahmins were nurtured traditionally across generations to possess those qualities.


At the later periods of propagation of Vedas, a properly formulated system of ensuring that Vedas were preserved and passed on generation after generation without errors, 6 Vedangas (Veda Angas, meaning limbs of Veda) were  developed. They deal with outlining and explaining systematically the grammar (Vyakarana), meter (chandas), phonetics (shiksha), etymology (Nirukta), astronomy (Jyotisha) and rituals (kalpa).

NOTE: The Vedangas are NOT part of Shruti, but they are part of Smriti texts.

Parts of Vedas (classification of contents)

Karma Kanda  —  Samhitas (hymns) & Brahmanas (rites)

Vedas prominently contain mantras, hymns, chants and rites which were/are essential to worship Celestial Gods of nature (Varuna, Vayu, Indra, Rudra etc) in order to satisfy them and get cattle, good harvest, progeny, gold, wealth and possessions for happy living in this world without being troubled by natural calamities. Whatever activities (karmas) and rites vedas ordain for these purposes are classified into Karma Kanda. It must be noted that each of the 4 vedas do contain Karma kandas with Samhita and Brahmana classifications under it.

For convenience sake, the Mantra, hymns and chanting part of Vedas (under Karma Kanda) were grouped in to Samhitas.  The procedural aspects, rites and rituals were explained in prose under Brahmanas.

Conducting a Yagya (Fire sacrifice)

Samhitas and Brahmanas are primarily concerned with invocation of Gods and conducting fire rituals and sacrifices connected with the 16 samskaras (healthy vedic practices and ordained rituals to be done at various stages in life right from conceiving a child, birth, naming ceremony, beginning of education, marriage, death ceremonies and ending with post-death remembrance ceremonies. At the larger picture, there were elaborate yagnyas (Grand fire sacrifices) conducted by kings like Ashwamedha yaga, Rajasuya Yaga, Vaishnava Yaga etc.

Kings conducted such yagas to establish their supremacy over  other kings, to conquer more  powers through boons to be obtained from celestial Gods, to ensure life in heaven post-death, to bring prosperity to their nations and so on. Such yagas involved lots of materials, elaborate procedures, plenty of gifts to be given to poor people, invited guests (including other kings)  and Brahmins, variety of mantras to be chanted to invoke celestial Gods and so on.  Samhitas and Brahmanas essentially contain all these details.

The Jnana Kanda

The Aranyakas (theology)

The Aranyakas contain the Vedic practices, and contemplative analysis and aspects of them related to forest life. In some vedas and in the assessment of some scholars, the Aranyakas appear to be an extension of Brahmanas only and some times they are treated as part of Karma Kanda only.

As per the Ashrama dharmas (Brahmacharya, Grihasta, Vanaprastha and Sanyasa)  prevailing in vedic period, once the duties of family life (grihasta ashrama) are over, middle aged husbands and wives shifted to forest for living a life of austerity and divine contemplation. As per vedic tradition, they get so much used to doing their vedic karmas with necessary fire sacrifice rites, they tend to continue with those practices in the forest too. The Aranyaka portion of the Vedas contained the necessary scriptural guidelines for them. Procedures and materials for such sacrifices have got to be simpler to suit the simpler lifestyles of forest dwellers.

A relaxed life in the forest without worldly desires also means there was scope for review and contemplation of the vedic practices, finding out better interpretations and meanings of them, questioning their significance, need for search of better knowledge about divinity other than seeking sops from Gods for happy living. The Aranyakas contain the contemplative aspects of the Rishi’s thought process in these matters.

Further, as we can learn from Ramayana, great Rishis like Vishwamitra conducted special fire sacrifices with some grander purposes (for the welfare of the world perhaps  to counter the evil forces like asuras and rakshasas) . Some of them could be secretive too. Suspecting this secrecy, Asuras came to destroy those Yagnas  and thats’ how we find Vishwamitra taking the help of Rama and Lakshmana to protect the yaga. Naturally, the secretive part of rituals too are contained in Aranyakas.

Vedanta – The Upanishads (philosophy)

Having experienced the worldly life with its joys and sorrows and having understood the benefits as well as the limitations of totally relying on vedic karmas, there were indeed doubts and questions in the minds of the rishis. Procedures were too many, disciplines were too demanding, material needs to conduct rites were imposing and there could be so many lapses leading to failure of the intended purposes of conducting yagas. Desires don’t seem to get satiated, expectations are not always met and dissatisfaction still remains in life.

The rishis of yonder started thirsting for better spiritual knowledge; through deep meditation, they  inquired into the cause of birth, death, jiva (soul), God, how God is related to soul, what is the true nature of God and so on. Through their tapas, the rishis acquired the supreme knowledge related to all these queries. They experienced that God called by them as Brahman is beyond name and form but inclusive of everything in the creation; it is smaller than an atom but as all pervasive as infinity and it is no different from Self. It is not just a theory but something experienced and never explicable by words.

The rishis tried their best to teach this transcendental experience of Brahman in whatever best way they could — by verbose explanations, through poetically expressed hymns, by cryptic but grand statements (‘maha vakyas‘), through examples and similes, by stories and so on. Such part of the documents is Upanishads or Vedanta (the culmination of Veda) and those parts of vedas containing these teachings are called Jnana Kanda. In some vedas and in the assessment of some scholars, the Aranyakas appear to be a prelude to the Upanishads; Upanishads in some vedas seem to naturally culminate as an extension of Aranyakas.  Hence Aranyakas too are considered parts of Jnana Kanda.

Upanishads thus form the very core and crux of the highest knowledge of spirituality in Hinduism. They are one of the three authentic philosophical reference scriptures of Hinduism viz Prasthana Triya (Brahma Sutra and Bhagavad Gita are the other two).  More details on Upanishads are covered in a separate chapter here:  <> UPANISHADS.

Several portions of Vedas have been lost across time

It is only natural that a scriptural tradition existing and propagated across countless generations  only through verbal transmission from time immemorial, several parts and segments of Vedas have been lost. More than hundreds of Upanishads were said to be existing, but primarily about a dozen of them are existing.  Only a very small portion of Sama Veda is reportedly existing alive now.

The significance of Karma Kanda has also been considerably diluted in present times. Yagas like Ashvamedha or Rajasuya have totally lost their significance since several centuries. However, the crux of Upanishad philosophy is still available intact and whatever existing definitely contain the very essence of the ultimate spiritual knowledge.

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How come there are so many puranas containing same stories in different and distorted versions? Why some Puranas eulogize some Gods while others undermine the same Gods?

Such things happen naturally in a grand religion with scriptures written at various centuries across a time period of some 3000 – 4000 years.

As our Rishis have pointed out, the quality and caliber of people deteriorate from one yuga to another — people were at their best of dharma and spirituality in Satya Yuga and gradually deteriorate to their lowest level at Kali Yuga.

Accordingly, the capacity for the people to grasp religion and spirituality deteriorated in contrast to knowledge of science and technology advancing century by century! The more the head grows, the weaker the heart becomes.

Puranas too must have undergone deterioration accordingly. Sanskrit Pundits and scholars with highly religious bend of mind, who had access to ancient scriptures of Puranas too were subject to different ideas about God and they too might have got compartmentalized to sects like Shaivism, Vaishnavism etc. Accordingly, eulogizing one God over other and undermining one God over other might have started by them by writing new Purnas/ editing/rewriting/ inserting fresh supplements to established puranas with their own concoctions, intentional distortions and manipulations.

Vyasa and 18 Puranas – a critical view

Vyasa Maharshi (Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa) is considered an Avatar of Lord Vishnu and he is credited with compiling all the 18 major puranas. He is also considered a Chiranjivin (immortal) – ever living. He is also credited with compiling Vedas into four (Rik, Yajur, Sama and Atharva Vedas). He was the author of the epic Mahabharata too. He is also said to be the author of Brahma Sutras.

Vyasa Maharshi dictating Mahabharata to Lord Ganesha…

If we take Vyasa’s Mahabharata and his Bhagavata Mahapurana, there are several variations in the happenings of events post Mahabharata war that appear in both the scriptures. While in Mahabharata the five Pandavas were described to be people who were in the clutches of their attachments and aversions till the end of their lives and they were mentioned to end up in Heaven. Same case with king Parikshit too. It means they were all like ordinary mortals who were destined to go through further birth and death cycles. On the other hand, Srimad Bhagavatam mentions them to become earnest seekers at their fag ends of life and attain moksha by Self-realization.

Puranas (as well as the Itihas Mahabharata) contain several stories of Gods, Devatas, Asuras, great devotees, great emperors, historical events and lineages of kings, description of geographies, theories about creation and so on. Many of them get repeated in various puranas, in different versions and variations. Naturally, the question arises how there are so much variations and distortions, if the author or all the puranas is one and the same Vyasa.

Some historians say that the time periods of writing Mahabharata, Brahma sutra, Bhagavata Purana etc are different, spreading across several centuries. Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa (of Mahabharata) and Badarayana Vyasa (of Brahma sutra) could be two different personalities, according to some of them.

Or, it is also possible that Vyasa being a title, there could have been so many descendents of Vyasa (off Krishna Dwaipayana Vysasa) who, in subsequent centuries edited/ re-wrote original versions, wrote newer ones as per their own interpretations and and still maintained the authorship to be Vyasa (in general).

There is also a possibility that so many other scholars wrote / compiled Puranas in various centuries, but for the sake of gaining authenticity, they projected as if every Purana originated from Vyasa/written by the same Vyasa!

Different tastes and affiliations, different Puranas

According to Hinduism, God appears in the form in which an ardent Devotee does tapas (extreme austerities) to get the vision of God.  Naturally, if a Shaiva (devotee of Lord Shiva)  longs to have the vision of His God, God appears to him as Shiva. Such a devotee, by the strength of his personal realization becomes convinced that the Ultimate God is Lord Shiva and his mindset may get so firm that God could not be in the form of Vishnu or Brahma.

Thus, saints and gurus chose such of those Puranas that matched with their own experience, liking, taste, temperament and mental leaning as “the most authentic” and discounted other puranas. Thus Shiva Purana, Linga Purana etc were projected as authentic ones by Shaivas,while Vaishnavas stood by Vishnu Purana and Bhagavata Purana. Shaktas eulogized Markandeya Purana, Devi Mahatmiya etc.

It is perhaps in the same way that the pinnacle of Advaita experience (philosophy) of Upanishads got diluted to suit the capacity of intake of spiritual seekers who could not attain that level of oneness with Brahman. That’s how Vishishtadvaita and later Dvaita came up as alternative interpretations of scriptural truths, evolved based on the respective Acharya’s spiritual experiences with reference to God.  It helped people by and large to get connected to their personal God and religion in a way accessible and practicable by them and also gave them the assurance that they are in tune with the scriptures.

Srimad Bhagavata Purana is considered the greatest of all the puranas because it contains all the three shades (Advaita, Vishitadvaita and Dvaita) in its stories, discourses, prayers and parables. It is one Purana that can be said to bridge both Bhakti (devotion) and Jnayna (Knowledge) in a wonderful way.

Only after the advent of Itihasas and Puranas, the practice of worshiping Avatars (like Rama, Krishna, Narasimha etc) came up in Hinduism, particularly suited for Kali Youga. That’s how Agamas/ Pancharatras too came up later in Kali Yuga establishing and formalizing worshiping of Gods through idols in formally consecrated temples for worship, which was not there at all at Vedic times.

It can also be noted that in Vedas’ Karma Kanda, worshiping of Devatas (Indra, Varuna, Agni, Savita, Vayu and so on) and satisfying them through yagas (fire sacrifices) was widely prevalent. Over passage of centuries and and after evolution of Buddhism and Jainism from Hinduism, fire sacrifices and offering cows and horses as sacrifice in Yagnyas stopped. Worship of Eswaras (Prime Gods like Shiva, Vishnu and Shakti) became more prominent leaving Devatas behind.

The Puranas, as part of Smritis have contributed in a big way to pave the way for this shift.