On October 6th, 1969, in London, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada gave a lecture about the Vedas. He began as follows: “Ladies and gentlemen, today’s subject matter is the teachings of the Vedas. What are the Vedas? The Sanskrit verbal root of veda can be interpreted variously, but the purport is finally one. Veda means knowledge. Any knowledge you accept is veda, for the teachings of the Vedas are the original knowledge…”
The Vedas, Vedangas, Upangas and Upavedas
The Vedas are one body of knowledge divided into four, the Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva Veda. Each of the four Vedas has several, slightly variant recensions known as sakhas. In each of those sakhas there are three portions: the Samhita, Brahmana, and the Aranyaka.
The Rig Veda contains many Sanskrit hymns of praise directed to many devas or gods, in truth many aspects of the one, single divine. What in later ages became known as slokas, or metrical verses, were originally known as rigs. Each rig is a mantra and a number of such rigs or mantras make up a poem known as a sukta. The Samhita portion of the Rig Veda contains more than ten thousand rigs (10,170 to be precise) grouped into 1028 poems or suktas.
The word Yajur is derived from the word Yaj or worship. The word Yajna, meaning sacrificial worship, is also derived from this stem. The Yajur Veda spells out the ritualistic procedural details of worship whereby all the rigs of the Rig Veda can be employed.
The word Sama means to ‘make peaceful’ and the Sama Veda contains music to make the gods peaceful and pleased with the worshipper. In order to attain the grace of the gods who are being propitiated, the priest sings the rig mantras to the seven notes of the musical scale rather than the strict upward and downward notes of the Rig Veda chanting.
The Atharva Veda draws its name from the rishi named Atharva who revealed it. The mantras in this Veda are for protection.
The Vedangas are the various ‘limbs’ of the Vedas and include texts on pronunciation of the mantras (Siksha) texts on grammar and poetic metre (Vyakaran and Chanda) as well as a dictionary (Nirukti). Since Vedic yajnas or rituals have to be performed in exactly constructed arenas and according to the phases of the moon and stars there are also handbooks for mathematics, astrology and ritual detail (Jyotish and Kalpa)
The Upangas are the ‘subsidiary limbs’ and consist of texts that support the performance of ritual and the comprehension of their importance and intrinsic philosophical basis. They include Mimamsa, the ‘deep analysis of a subject worthy of reverence,’ Nyaya, the system of logical deduction and analysis of evidence; histories or Purana, and the Dharma Shastras, codes of living for civilised people.
The Dharma Shastras describe household duties, personal work, cleanliness, eating, and ceremonies related to life-cycle events such as weddings and funerals. There are 18 such texts, known as smritis, written by 18 rishis such as Manu, Yajnavalkya and Parasara, and the smritis all bear their names.
The Upavedas are texts dealing with corollary subjects important for organizing the various features and essential elements of civilized human society. Ayur-veda explains an elaborate system of medicine; the Artha-shastra describes polity and economics; the Dhanur-veda focuses on ethical warfare and the Gandharva-veda teaches music.