The Vedas are the religious texts which inform the religion of Hinduism (also known as Sanatan Dharma meaning “Eternal Order” or “Eternal Path”). The term veda means “knowledge” in that they are thought to contain the fundamental knowledge relating to the underlying cause of, function of, and personal response to existence. They are considered among the oldest, if not the oldest, religious works in the world. They are commonly referred to as “scripture”, which is accurate in that they can be defined as holy writ concerning the nature of the Divine. Unlike the scriptures of other religions, however, the Vedas are not thought to have been revealed to a certain person or persons at a specific historical moment; they are believed to have always existed and were apprehended by sages in deep meditative states at some point prior to c. 1500 BCE but precisely when is unknown.
The Vedas existed in oral form and were passed down from master to student for generations until they were committed to writing between c. 1500 – c. 500 BCE (the so-called Vedic Period) in India. They were carefully preserved orally as masters would have students memorize them forwards and backwards with emphasis on exact pronunciation in order to keep what was originally heard intact.
The Vedas are therefore regarded as Shruti in Hinduism meaning “what is heard” as contrasted with other texts designated Smritis (“what is remembered”), accounts of great heroes and their struggles in works such as the Mahabharata, Ramayana, and Bhagavad Gita (although some sects of Hinduism regard the Bhagavad Gita as Shruti).
The texts which make up the Four Vedas are:
• Rig Veda
• Sama Veda
• Yajur Veda
• Atharva Veda
Each of these is further divided into types of text included within them:
• Aranyakas – rituals, observances
• Brahmanas – commentaries on said rituals
• Samhitas – benedictions, prayers, mantras
• Upanishads – philosophical narratives and dialogues
The Upanishads are the best known and most often read of the Vedas because their discourse is presented in dialogue/narrative form and they were the first to be translated into other languages. The four Vedas, conversely, are considered the literal sounds of the Divine which, when recited or sung, recreate the primal vibrations of the universe. Accordingly, they are actually impossible to translate and what one reads in a translation should be understood as a paraphrase at best.