The fourth part of Vedic literature consists of the Upanishads. Each of these, too, is attached to one of the Vedic Samhitas. There are numerous Upanishads, and 108 are listed in the 17th century Muktika Upanishad, but of these only about 14 are early texts, dating to before the 3rd century BCE. The Upanishads are highly philosophical. These texts are categorized as Vedanta [Veda + anta=end], as they are both the last of the four main groups of Vedic texts, and also the most important.
These texts have many topics, but the main focus is Brahman, the eternal, beyond birth and death, unchanging, the source of all creation, yet uncreated. Brahman pervades the whole world and is in every living being. The atman or soul, is of the essence of Brahman, its nature being true consciousness and bliss. A person has the potential to realize this true nature, but trapped in things of the world, they hardly even think about it.
The early Upanishads are the Aitareya, Kaushitaki, Taittiriya, Brihadaranyaka, Chhandogya, Kena, Kathaka, Shvetashvatara, Mahanarayana, Isha, Mundaka, Prashna, Maitrayaniya, and Mandukya.
There are several Aranyakas.
The Aitareya Aranyaka forms part of the Aitareya Brahmana, and is attached to the Rig Veda. It has five sections, describing sacrificial rituals and philosophical concepts. It refers to several rishis.
The Kaushitaki Aranyaka is attached to the Kaushitaki Brahmana of the Rig Veda.
The Taittiriya Aranyaka, forming part of the Taittiriya Brahmana is attached to the Krishna Yajur Veda.
The Katha Aranyaka is also attached to the Krishna Yajur Veda.
For the Shukla Yajur veda, there is the Brihadaranyaka, or Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, which actually comes in the category of Upanishads.
For the Sama Veda, the Chhandogya Upanishad has a first section that is similar to an Aranyaka.
Also of the Sama Veda, the Jaiminiya Upanishad Brahmana has the characteristics of an Aranyaka, and contains within it the Kena Upanishad. It is also called the Talavakra Aranyaka.
Thus one can see that the Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and some of the Upanishads are closely connected. But there are many more Upanishads, and we will describe them next.
The third category of texts that form part of Vedic literature are the Aranyakas. Certain different rituals and sacrifices are described in them, and the symbolism of these rituals is also explained. They also have philosophical passages. The Aranyakas can be called ‘forest texts’ as aranya=forest. Some feel that these texts were for the vanaprastha stage of life, the third stage of the traditional varnashrama dharma, when the householder, having fulfilled his duties, retired to the forest. Others feel these texts explain the more complex sacrifices to be conducted away from the village or town.
As for the Brahmanas, each Aranyaka is attached to a Vedic Samhita.
The varnashrama dharma has not been explained earlier. It divides life into four stages, the first, that of the student or brahmachari, the second of the householder, the third, as seen above, when the householder retires to the forest, usually along with his wife, and the fourth, the stage of the sannyasi or ascetic, fully focused on god. This was a logical way of living, as at least in the final stage, there was an attempt to understand and focus on questions relating to life, death, and god, thus preparing the individual to meet death in a calm way.
There is just one Brahmana attached to the Atharva Veda: The Gopatha Brahmana.
Having gone through the list of Brahmanas, let us look at some of their contents.
As noted earlier, they provide descriptions of sacrificial rituals, and explain their symbolism. Among the sacrifices described are the agnihotra and pravargya, along with the numerous Soma sacrifices. The vajapeya and rajasuya, the royal consecration sacrifices are also described. Among the stories are those about Manu, Harishchandra, Pururava and others. There are numerous creation myths, with Manu, Prajapati, or someone else, being named as the creator. Some of the Sama Veda Brahmanas comment on the samans [Sama Veda verses], their efficacy and the deities involved, as well as on the ganas or songbooks. The Gopatha Brahmana attached to the Atharva Veda has two parts, the first praising the Atharva and its rishis, while the second includes descriptions of sacrifices and stories of Atharva Veda rishis. Some Brahmanas also contain Upanishads within their texts, but these will be described separately.
The Brahmanas which form the second category of Vedic texts, are attached to each of the Vedic Samhitas. Those attached to the Sama Veda are:
Tandya or Panchavimsha Brahmana;
Shadvimsha Brahmana [an addition to the Panchavimsha];
Chhandogya or Mantra Brahmana;
Jaiminiya or Talavakra Brahmana;
Jaiminiya Upanishas Brahmana;
Jaiminiya Arsheya Brahmana.
The Brahmanas, are the second category of Vedic texts. Those that are attached to the Yajur Veda are:
To the Krishna Yajur Veda:
Vadhula Brahmana: This is actually part of the Vadhula Shrauta Sutra [more on the Shrauta Sutras later].
To the Shukla Yajur Veda:
Shatapatha Brahmana. This is known in two different recensions and is an extraordinary long text. The Madhyandina recension has fourteen kandas [sections] subdivided into 100 adhyayas [subsections]. Part of it forms a commentary on the Yajur descriptions of sacrificial rituals.
The second category of texts included in Vedic literature are the Brahmanas.
Several Brahmanas are known. Each is attached to one of the Vedic Samhitas.
Their date in their present form is considered later than the Vedic Samhitas, but they contain some very ancient elements.
The Brahmanas contain explanations and rules for conducting sacrificial rituals, along with a number of stories.
They are written mainly in prose.
The contents in each Brahmana have some similarity.
Brahmanas attached to the Rig Veda are:
Shankayana Brahmana [almost the same as the Kaushitaki].
The Atharva Veda is the fourth Vedic samhita.
Two main versions of the Atharva Veda are known, the Shaunakiya and the Paippalada [named after rishis Shaunaka and Pippalada].
The Shaunaka version consists of 751 hymns containing about 6000 verses.
It is later than the Rig Veda in its present form, and is somewhat different from the other samhitas.
It contains both verse and prose.
About one-seventh of its hymns are from the Rig Veda, and it has some prayers to Rig Vedic deities.
It also has verses or hymns on a number of other topics.
There are some highly philosophic hymns.
There are many verses related to curing diseases, and to the herbs used to cure them.
There are magical chants for better health, and for various ailments.
The Atharva Veda can be called the earliest text on medicine in India.
The Sama Veda is the third Vedic samhita.
It is later than the Rig Veda, but closely related to it. A number of different shakhas of this Veda are known, which provide slightly different versions of the text.
It has approximately 1800 riks or verses [numbers vary in different shakhas] divided into two sections, Purvarchika and Uttararchika.
Almost all its verses can be traced to the Rig Veda. But the verses, and even single lines, are rearranged and modified for chanting.
The Sama Veda chants are specially arranged for the Soma rituals or sacrifices.
The method of chanting too, is provided.
The gods are the same as in the Rig Veda, but the main gods are Indra, Agni, and Soma.
Song books [Ganas] are attached to the Sama Veda. They indicate how the verses are to be sung or chanted and also add other songs.
There are four song books divided into two groups, Purvagana and Uttaragana.
In the Sama Veda and the Ganas we find the earliest record of music in India.
The Yajur Veda is the second samhita.
It is later than the Rig Veda. It may be dated around 1000 BCE or earlier.
While the Rig Veda has references to rituals and ritual sacrifices, the Yajur Veda was specially composed for rituals. It has both verses and prose passages specially arranged for recitation during yajnas [sacrifices]. They are known as yajus.
Many verses from the Rig Veda are found in the Yajur Veda but they are arranged differently.
The Yajur Veda has several shakhas or branches with different versions of the text. The two main versions are the Shukla [White] Yajur Veda and the Krishna [Black] Yajur Veda. Even these have variants.
The Vajasaneyi Samhita is the text we have of the Shukla Yajur Veda. The two variants or shakhas of the Vajasaneyi Samhita that are known today are the Kanva and Madhyandina.
The Vajasaneyi Samhita has forty to forty-one adhyayas [sections or chapters]. These are subdivided into khandikas. Each khandika contains a prayer or mantra.
The Krishna Yajur Veda contains the prayers of the first half of the Vajasaneyi Samhita. It adds to these with explanations.
There are many variants of the Krishna Yajurveda. Among them is the Taittiriya Samhita. The Taittiriya Samhita has seven kandas or sections, subdivided into prapathakas, which are again subdivided into anuvakas for recitation.
In the Yajur Veda the gods are the same as those in the Rig Veda.
The sacrificial rituals described are many. They include the agni or fire sacrifices, the chaturmasya or four-monthly sacrifice, the ashvamedha and other animal sacrifices, and the Soma sacrifices.
More will be added later on the elaborate sacrificial rituals that developed.