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What are the Vedas?

Question: "What are the Vedas?"

The Vedas are a set of four Hindu holy texts, written about 2,500 years ago. The first and most important of the Vedas is the Rig-Veda, a set of ten books comprising hymns and mantras to and about various deities. The second Veda is the Sama-Veda, a collection of melodies meant to be sung during Hindu sacrifices and offerings, called yajna. The third Veda is the Atharva-Veda, which consists of more hymns, mantras, and incantations, and most of these are to be sung outside the context of the yajna. The final Veda is the Yajur-Veda, which is a guidebook for priests performing yajnas. It has two sections: black and white.

The word Veda is Sanskrit for “knowledge,” and Hindus believe the knowledge in the Vedas to be divine in origin. This knowledge within the Vedas falls into four categories: Samhitas, which are mantras and benedictions; Aranyakas, which are writings delineating the symbols and ceremonies concerning sacrifices; the Brahmanas, which are writings about the rituals and sacrifices; and Upanishads, which are discussions about spiritual knowledge and Hindu philosophy. Sometimes a fifth category is employed—Upasanas, which are writings of worship. There are orthodox and heterodox approaches to the Vedas within Hinduism, much the same as the orthodox and heterodox approaches to Christian Scripture. Some Hindus see the Vedas as divine, authoritative truth, while others see them as non-authoritative.

It is not clear how old the Vedas actually are, because they were transmitted via oral tradition, perhaps for many centuries, before being written down. Once they were written down, it was often upon birch bark or palm leaves, materials that do not stand the test of time. So, it is likely that most of the earliest manuscripts have been lost. Even the texts today are somewhat fluid, varying from school to school in the Vedic tradition, and divided into shruti (“the heard”) and smriti (“the remembered”). That is not to say that there is no consistency within the Vedas—in fact, the Vedic schools have elaborate methods for passing on what is heard and remembered intact; inherent within the mneumonic technique are many forms of recitation done to eliminate mistakes as the information is passed down orally.

The Vedas are unlike the Bible in that they do not proclaim truth and salvation. They are mainly thoughts, ideas, speculation, and poetry about man and the universe, plus prescriptions for sacrifice and ritual. They are undoubtedly fascinating and beautiful writings, but they cannot be relied upon to reveal the knowledge of God. Only the Bible, which is God’s own communication to mankind, can be relied upon as true. Only the Bible is trustworthy to lead men from sin to a saving knowledge of God in Christ (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:19–21).

Recommended Resource: Encountering World Religions by Irving Hexham

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