The Vedic Samhitas were difficult to understand, and much learning was required to comprehend them. Before approaching the Samhitas, the Vedangas were to be studied. The Vedangas were a group of texts on six topics, shiksha or phonetics; vyakarana or grammar; chhandas or metre; nirukta or etymology, alternatively glossary; jyotisha or astronomy and astrology; and kalpa or ritual.
Most of these various Vedanga texts were written in sutras, a sutra being a short statement providing information in a compressed way. These sutras too, could only be understood by a learned person.
Did this ensure that only the elite could ever understand the Vedas?
Another category of secondary Vedic literature are the Anukramanis. Anukramani can be translated as a catalogue or index, but it is actually an additional explanatory text, providing details about various aspects of the Vedic samhitas. Anukramanis are assigned to various authors, and several Rig Veda anukramanis are said to be written by Shaunaka, a rishi known from other sources too. These provide the names of deities, metres, rishi authors, and other details of the Rig Veda suktas [hymns]. Anukramanis are also commented on by other authors. For the Sama Veda, some of the Sama Veda Brahmanas have characteristics of Anukramanis, while the there are other Anukramanis too for this, as well as for the Yajur Veda and Atharva Veda.
Upanishads –3 The Brahma Sutra
Vedanta is a system of philosophy based on the Upanishads. Its main principles were summarized by Badarayana, who probably lived between 500 BCE – CE 100. Badarayana wrote the Brahma Sutra, also known as the Vedanta Sutra. To the Upanishads and the Brahma Sutra, the Bhagavad Gita is added, in order to understand Vedanta. Numerous commentators wrote extensive commentaries on every aspect of Vedantic texts. They interpreted these texts in different ways, giving rise to different schools of Vedanta. Among these are Advaita, Dvaita, Dvaitadvaita, Vishishtadvaita, Shuddhadvaita and Shivadvaita. These and other philosophies will be explained in a different group of posts.
As seen earlier, the focus of all the Upanishads is the realization of Brahman. But this concept of Brahman is difficult to understand. Two descriptions of this are given below. According to the Kena Upanishad, it is through Brahman that everything is known. Yet Brahman is neither the known or the unknown.
The Katha Upanishad says: ‘Brahman, the immortal, contains all worlds in it, and no one goes beyond it.’
Some Upanishads state Brahman has two forms, both mortal and immortal. The mortal form must refer to the gods, who, though a part of Brahman, are not eternal.
Brahman, in its true sense, has never been created and can never be destroyed.
Some of the later Upanishads focus on gods, others on rituals. There are yoga Upanishads and sannyasi Upanishads. But the aim of all is the same, to transcend the world and realize Brahman. For this one must first understand the bliss of true realization, for only then will one focus on it. And only when the mind is fully focused on Brahman and on nothing else, will such realization be possible.
For more on the Upanishads, read The 108 Upanishads depicted above.
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.