Hindu Literature: Shruti (Vedas)

Hindu Literature can be classified into two broad categories: Shruti & Smruti. This blog covers in detail about the structure and types of Vedas. You can read about Smriti in the Hindu Literature: Smriti post.


Shruti, meaning ‘that which is heard’, refers to those ancient religious texts which did not have any particular author and which comprised the core values of Hinduism. Hindus consider the Shruti/Vedas to be apauruṣeya, which means “not of a man, superhuman” and “impersonal, authorless,” revelations of sacred sounds and texts heard by ancient sages after intense meditation. The Vedas have been orally transmitted since the 2nd millennium BCE with the help of elaborate mnemonic techniques. The Vedas were written down only after 500 BCE, but only the orally transmitted texts are regarded as authoritative, given the emphasis on the exact pronunciation of the sounds.Shruti as a body of ancient religious texts comprises the four Vedas:

  • Rig Veda – Rig means ‘Praise’. It explains in various hymns praising the elements of the Nature & Cosmos.
  • Yajur Veda – Yajur means ‘Worship’. It explains different procedures of worship of the Nature & Cosmos.
  • Saama Veda – Saama means ‘Song’. It gives a music driven canonical format to other Vedas for ease of recitation
  • Atharva Veda – Atharva means ‘Stable Mind’. It sets the rules for a steady state of daily life activities.

Only one version of the Rigveda is known to have survived into the modern era. Several different versions of the Sama Veda and the Atharva Veda are known, and many different versions of the Yajur Veda have been found in different parts of South Asia.
The various Indian philosophies and Hindu denominations have taken differing positions on the Vedas; schools of Indian philosophy which acknowledge the primal authority of the Vedas are classified as “orthodox” (āstika). Other śramaṇa traditions, such as Lokayata, Carvaka, Ajivika, Buddhism and Jainism, which did not regard the Vedas as authorities, are referred to as “heterodox” or “non-orthodox” (nāstika) schools.
Each Veda has been subclassified into four major text types (Embedded Texts):

  • Samhitas – mantras and benedictions
  • Aranyakas – text on rituals, ceremonies such as newborn baby’s rites of passage, coming of age, marriages, retirement and cremation, sacrifices and symbolic sacrifices
  • Brahmanas – commentaries on rituals, ceremonies and sacrifices
  • Upanishads – text discussing meditation, philosophy and spiritual knowledge. 

The Upasanas (short ritual worship-related sections) are considered by some scholars as the fifth part.


Each of the Vedas are also supported by Six external blocks (Auxiliary Disciplines) called Vedangas (Limbs of Vedas) that complement the knowledge framework of Vedas.

  • Siksha: Study of Phonetics
  • Vyarakana: Study of Grammar
  • Chhandas: Study of Linguistic Rythim
  • Niruktha: Study of Etymology
  • Jyothishya: Study of Astronomy and Astrology
  • Kalpa: Study of Rituals

The character of Vedangas has roots in ancient times, and the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad mentions it as an integral part of the Brahmanas layer of the Vedic texts. These auxiliary fields of Vedic studies emerged because the language of the Vedic texts composed centuries earlier grew too archaic to the people of that time (1st millennium BCE).

The Structure of Vedas


The Rigveda Samhita is the oldest extant Indic text. It is a collection of 1,028 Vedic Sanskrit hymns and 10,600 verses in all, organized into ten books (Sanskrit: mandalas). The books were composed by poets from different priestly groups over a period of several centuries between c. 1500 and 1200 BC in the Punjab (Sapta Sindhu) region of the Indian subcontinent.The rituals became increasingly complex over time, and the king’s association with them strengthened both the position of the Brahmans and the kings. The Rajasuya rituals, performed with the coronation of a king, “set in motion cyclical regenerations of the universe.” In terms of substance, the nature of hymns shift from praise of deities in early books to Nasadiya Sukta with questions such as, “what is the origin of the universe?, do even gods know the answer?”, the virtue of Dāna (charity) in society, and other metaphysical issues in its hymns.


The Samaveda Samhita consists of 1549 stanzas, taken almost entirely (except for 75 mantras) from the Rigveda. While its earliest parts are believed to date from as early as the Rigvedic period, the existing compilation dates from the post-Rigvedic Mantra period of Vedic Sanskrit, between c. 1200 and 1000 BCE or “slightly later,” roughly contemporary with the Atharvaveda and the Yajurveda.The Samaveda samhita has two major parts. The first part includes four melody collections (gāna) and the second part three verse “books” (ārcika). A melody in the song books corresponds to a verse in the arcika books.


The Yajurveda Samhita consists of prose mantras. It is a compilation of ritual offering formulas that were said by a priest while an individual performed ritual actions such as those before the yajna fire. The core text of the Yajurveda falls within the classical Mantra period of Vedic Sanskrit at the end of the 2nd millennium BCE – younger than the Rigveda, and roughly contemporary with the Atharvaveda and the Sāmaveda.Unlike the Samaveda which is almost entirely based on Rigveda mantras and structured as songs, the Yajurveda samhitas are in prose and linguistically, they are different from earlier Vedic texts.There are two major groups of texts in Yajur Veda: the “Black” (Krishna – the unarranged, motley collection) and the “White” (Shukla – well arranged collection). The White Yajurveda separates the Samhita from its Brahmana (the Shatapatha Brahmana), the Black Yajurveda intersperses the Samhita with Brahmana commentary.


The Artharvaveda Samhita is the text belonging to the Atharvan and Angirasa poets. It has about 760 hymns, and about 160 of the hymns are in common with the Rigveda. Most of the verses are metrical (poetic), but some sections are in prose. Two different versions of the text – the Paippalāda and the Śaunakīya – have survived into the modern times. The Atharvaveda was not considered as a Veda in the Vedic era, and was accepted as a Veda in late 1st millennium BCE.
The Samhita layer of Atharva Veda likely represents a developing 2nd millennium BCE tradition of magico-religious rites to address superstitious anxiety, spells to remove maladies believed to be caused by demons, and herbs- and nature-derived potions as medicine. The Atharva veda has been a primary source for information about Vedic culture, the customs and beliefs, the aspirations and frustrations of everyday Vedic life, as well as those associated with kings and governance.


The term upaveda (“applied knowledge”) is used in traditional literature to designate the subjects of certain technical works. each Veda is associated with a Upaveda that deals with different subjects. Lists of what subjects are included in this class differ among sources.

  • Rig Veda: Architecture (Sthapatyaveda) or Medicine & Life Sciences (Ayurveda)
  • Yajur Veda: Archery and Warfare (Dhanurveda)
  • Sama Veda: Music, Arts and Dance (Gāndharvaveda)
  • Atharvaveda: Medicine (Āyurveda) or Commerce and Business Administration (Arthashastra)

Panchama Veda: Some post-Vedic texts, including the Mahabharata, the Natyasastra and certain Puranas, refer to themselves as the “fifth Veda”. Other texts such as the Bhagavad Gita or the Vedanta Sutras are considered shruti or “Vedic” by some Hindu denominations but not universally within Hinduism. The Bhakti movement, and Gaudiya Vaishnavism in particular extended the term veda to include the Sanskrit Epics and Vaishnavite devotional texts such as the Pancaratra.


Samhita also refers to the most ancient layer of text in the Vedas, consisting of mantras, hymns, prayers, litanies and benedictions. Parts of Vedic Samhitas constitute the oldest living part of Hindu tradition.The Samhitas are sometimes identified as karma-khanda (action / ritual-related section), while the Upanishads are identified as jnana-khanda (knowledge / spirituality-related section). The Aranyakas and Brahmanas are variously identified, sometimes as the ceremonial karma-khanda, other times (or parts of them) as the jnana-khanda.The Gayatri mantra, the famous Hindu mantra is found in Rig Veda Samhita.Many Indologists have noted that in the transmission of the Samhitas the emphasis is on the phonology of the sounds (śabda) and not on the meaning (artha) of the mantras. Already at the end of the Vedic period their original meaning had become obscure for “ordinary people,” and niruktas, etymological compendia, were developed to preserve and clarify the original meaning of many Sanskrit words.

Post-Vedic Samhitas

There are many well known books written in the post-vedic period, also known as samhitas, because the word “samhita” also means “systematic compilation of knowledge”. Vedic samhitas should not be confused with these samhitas of post-vedic period.Some post-vedic Samhitas are: Ashtavakra Gita, Bhrigu Samhita, Charaka Samhita, Deva Samhita, Garga Samhita, Gheranda Samhita, Kashyap Samhita, Shiva Samhita, Brihat Samhita, Sushruta Samhita (a treatise on food and medicine), Yogayajnavalkya Samhita


The Brahmanas are Vedic śruti works attached to the Samhitas (hymns and mantras) of the Rig, Sama, Yajur, and Atharva Vedas. They come under the secondary layer or classification embedded within each Veda, and are prose texts that comment and explain the solemn rituals as well as expound on their meaning and many connected themes describing it in its minute detail, its value and its potency. They often explain and instruct Brahmins on the performance of Vedic rituals. In addition to explaining the symbolism and meaning of the Samhitas, Brahmana literature also expounds scientific knowledge of the Vedic Period, including observational astronomy and, particularly in relation to altar construction, geometry.
Each Veda has one or more of its own Brahmanas, and each Brahmana is generally associated with a particular Shakha or Vedic school. The Brahmanas may either form separate texts or can be partly integrated into the text of the Samhitas. They may also include the Aranyakas and Upanishads. Less than twenty Brahmanas are currently extant, as most have been lost or destroyed

Rig VedaKausitaki / Samkhyana Brahmana
Sama VedaPanchavimsha / Tandya BrahmanaSamavidhana BrahmanaDaivata BrahmanaSamhitopanishad BrahmanaArsheya BrahmanaVamsha BrahmanaJaiminiya BrahmanaChandogya Brahmana
Yajur VedaShatapatha BrahmanaTaittiriya Brahmana
Atharva VedaGopatha Brahmana


The Aranyakas are the part of the ancient Indian Vedas concerned with the meaning of ritual sacrifice. Aranyakas describe and discuss rituals from various perspectives; some include philosophical speculations. The Aranyakas discuss sacrifices, in the language and style of the Brahmanas, and thus are primarily concerned with the proper performance of ritual (orthopraxy). The Aranyakas were restricted to a particular class of rituals that nevertheless were frequently included in the Vedic curriculum.The structure of the Aranyakas is as little homogenous as their contents. Some portions have the character of a Samhita, others of a Brahmana, others again of a SutraIn the immense volume of ancient Indian Vedic literature, there is no absolute universally true distinction between Aranyakas and Brahmanas. Similarly, there is no absolute distinction between Aranyakas and Upanishads, as some Upanishads are incorporated inside a few Aranyakas. Aranyakas, along with Brahmanas, represent the emerging transitions in later Vedic religious practices. The transition completes with the blossoming of ancient Indian philosophy from external sacrificial rituals to internalized philosophical treatise of Upanishads.

Rig VedaAitareya AranyakaKaushitaki Aranyaka
Sama VedaTalavakara Aranyaka
Yajur VedaTaittiriya AranyakaMaitrayaniya AranyakaKatha AranyakaBrihad Aranyaka
Atharva VedaThe Atharvaveda has no surviving Aranyaka, though the Gopatha Brahmana is regarded as its Aranyaka, a remnant of a larger, lost Atharva (Paippalada) Brahmana.


Upanishads are the most recent part of the Hinduism’s oldest scriptures, the Vedas, that deal with meditation, philosophy, and ontological knowledge; while the other parts of the Vedas deal with mantras, benedictions, rituals, ceremonies, and sacrifices. Among the most important literature in the history of Indian religions and culture, the Upanishads played an important role in the development of spiritual ideas in ancient India, marking a transition from Vedic ritualism to new ideas and institutions.


There are more than 200 known Upanishads, one of which, the Muktikā Upanishad, predates 1656 CE and contains a list of 108 canonical Upanishads, including itself as the last. The Muktikā Upanishad’s list of 108 Upanishads groups the first 13 as Mukhya (Prasthanatrayi), 21 as Sāmānya Vedānta, 20 as Sannyāsa, 14 as Vaishnava, 12 as Shaiva, 8 as Shakta, and 20 as Yoga. The mukhya Upanishads are found mostly in the concluding part of the Brahmanas and Aranyakas and were, for centuries, memorized by each generation and passed down orally. The authorship of most Upanishads is uncertain and unknown. The mukhya Upanishads predate the Common Era, but there is no scholarly consensus on their dateThere is no fixed list of the Upanishads as newer ones, beyond the Muktika anthology of 108 Upanishads, have continued to be discovered and composed. In 1908, for example, four previously unknown Upanishads were discovered in newly found manuscripts, and these were named Bashkala, Chhagaleya, Arsheya, and Saunaka

Relationship with Vedas

The ancient Upanishads are embedded in the Vedas, the oldest of Hinduism’s religious scriptures, which some traditionally consider to be apauruṣeya, which means “not of a man, superhuman”While the hymns of the Vedas emphasize rituals and the Brahmanas serve as a liturgical manual for those Vedic rituals, the spirit of the Upanishads is inherently opposed to ritual. The older Upanishads launch attacks of increasing intensity on the ritual. Anyone who worships a divinity other than the self is called a domestic animal of the gods in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (one of the oldest Upanishad). The Chāndogya Upanishad parodies those who indulge in the acts of sacrifice by comparing them with a procession of dogs chanting Om! Let’s eat. Om! Let’s drink.The Mundaka Upanishad declares how man has been called upon, promised benefits for, scared unto and misled into performing sacrifices, oblations and pious works. Mundaka thereafter asserts this is foolish and frail, by those who encourage it and those who follow it, because it makes no difference to man’s current life and after-life, it is like blind men leading the blind, it is a mark of conceit and vain knowledge, ignorant inertia like that of children, a futile useless practice.During the modern era, the ancient Upanishads that were embedded texts in the Vedas, were detached from the Brahmana and Aranyaka layers of Vedic text, compiled into separate texts and these were then gathered into anthologies of the Upanishads.

Upanishad Philosophy

Two concepts that are of paramount importance in the Upanishads are Brahman and Atman. The Brahman is the ultimate reality and the Atman is individual self (soul). Brahman is the material, efficient, formal and final cause of all that exists. It is the pervasive, genderless, infinite, eternal truth and bliss which does not change, yet is the cause of all changes. Brahman is “the infinite source, fabric, core and destiny of all existence, both manifested and unmanifested, the formless infinite substratum and from which the universe has grown”. Brahman in Hinduism, states Paul Deussen, as the “creative principle which lies realized in the whole world”.The word Atman means the inner self, the soul, the immortal spirit in an individual, and all living beings including animals and trees. Ātman is a central idea in all the Upanishads, and “Know your Ātman” their thematic focus. These texts state that the inmost core of every person is not the body, nor the mind, nor the ego, but Atman – “soul” or “self”. Atman is the spiritual essence in all creatures, their real innermost essential being. It is eternal, it is ageless. Atman is that which one is at the deepest level of one’s existence.The Upanishads describe the universe, and the human experience, as an interplay of Purusha(the eternal, unchanging principles, consciousness) and Prakṛti(the temporary, changing material world, nature). The former manifests itself as Ātman (soul, self), and the latter as Māyā. The Upanishads refer to the knowledge of Atman as “true knowledge” (Vidya), and the knowledge of Maya as “not true knowledge” (Avidya, Nescience, lack of awareness, lack of true knowledge).


The Upanishads include sections on philosophical theories that have been at the foundation of Indian traditions. For example, the Chandogya Upanishad includes one of the earliest known declarations of Ahimsa(non-violence) as an ethical precept. Discussion of other ethical premises such as Damah (temperance, self-restraint), Satya (truthfulness), Dāna (charity), Ārjava (non-hypocrisy), Daya (compassion) and others are found in the oldest Upanishads and many later Upanishads. Similarly, the Karma doctrine is presented in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, which is the oldest UpanishadSarvepalli Radhakrishna said that, the Upanishads are respected not because they are considered revealed (Shruti), but because they present spiritual ideas that are inspiring.Along with the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahmasutra, the Mukhya Upanishads (known collectively as the Prasthanatrayi) provide a foundation for the several later schools of Vedanta (like Advaitha, Vishishtadvaitha)

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