The Vedas are a collection of knowledge, and are considered to be humanity’s most ancient literature. Unlike any other literature, the Vedas are apauruṣeya (non-human), that is not authored by human beings. Uninterrupted tradition tells us that the Vedas emanated from Brahmā at the beginning of creation. Since creation repeats, the Vedas are considered as “anādi” (beginningless) and “ananta” (endless); as such the Vedas are indestructible.
The Vedas can be divided into two major parts — the first deals with Karma (ritual), and the second with Jñāna (cognition). A careful survey of the Vedas shows that apart from cognition and ritual, the Vedas offer guidelines concerning the protection of the elements, purification of the mind, harmony in the society, and personality development. The roots of Dharma can be traced to the Vedas.
Until the sage Vedavyāsa divided them, the Vedas were a single wisdom repository. The four collections, Ṛgveda, Yajurveda, Sāmaveda, and Atharvaveda emerged from this division. Originally Ṛgveda had had 21 branches; Yajurveda, 100 branches; Sāmaveda, 1000 branches; and Atharvaveda, nine branches. Presently only 12 branches of the Vedas are available. The Ṛgveda contains Ṛks (hymns) that praise the deity. The Yajurveda consists of Yajus (sentences) that explain the performance of rituals. The Sāmaveda is nothing but the Ṛgveda associated with music (Sāmagāna). The Atharvaveda consists of a blend of prose and poetry. Apart from spiritual matters, the Atharvaveda deals with prosaic subjects such as health, and polity.
Dichotomy of the Vedas
Broadly, the Vedas can be put under two headings – Mantrabhāga and Brāhmaṇabhāga. The term “mantra” means, “the one that protects if recited with meditation”. Mantras are used in Yajñas (sacrifices and rituals) and other Karmas (rites). Saṃhitā is a synonym of Mantrabhāga. Brāhmaṇas explain the Mantras. The Āraṇyakas and the Upaniṣads are also included in Brāhmaṇas.
Dichotomy of Purpose
Following the two kinds of purpose that is being served, the Vedas can be divided into two parts – the former proposing Karmas (rites such as Yajña) that help in attaining Svarga (heaven), and the latter proposing Jñāna (cognition) that is required to attain Mokṣa (union of individual soul with universal soul). According to Muṇḍakopaniṣat of the Atharvaveda (1-1-4 & 5) the earlier parts of the Vedas and Vedāṅgas is called Aparā vidyā, whereas the Upaniṣats are Parā vidyā.