jñānena tu tad ajñānam yeṣāṃ nāśitam ātmanaḥ | teṣām ādityavaj jñānaṃ prakāśayati tat param
“As the sun dispels darkness and illuminates everything, so divine knowledge destroys ignorance and reveals the transcendental Absolute Truth.” — Bhagavad-Gītā 5.16    

The Vedic Scriptures, Vedic Literature

sarvasya cāhaṃ hṛdi sanniviṣṭo mataḥ smṛtir jñānam apohanaṃ ca | vedaiś ca sarvair aham eva vedyo vedānta kṛd veda-vid eva cāham
“I dwell in the heart of everyone, and from Me come remembrance, knowledge and forgetfulness. The aim of all the Vedas is to know Me. Verily, I am the author of the Vedānta, and I am the knower of the Vedas.”
— Bhagavad-gītā 15.15

The following important vedic literature shall be shortly presented here.

The Vedic or divine knowledge was written down at the beginning of this age about 5,000 years ago by Vedavyāsa, an incarnation of the Supreme Lord.1 Before that, it was transmitted orally. As the first living being, Brahmā, who is also known as Prajapati (“Lord of Creatures”), received the knowledge directly from Kṛṣṇa, the Supreme Lord. Brahmā passed it on to his sons, who imparted it to their sons and disciples, and so on. Initially, there was only one Veda, which was later divided into four for ease of study into Ṛg, Yajur, Sama and Atharva. Rg Veda contains hymns, Yajur ritualistic knowledge for the performance of yajñas, Sama hymns of the Ṛg edited for song and music, and Atharva Veda contains mantras of the Ṛg and Yajur, besides many mantras and prayers for various purposes (e.g. healing; elimination of diseases). The Vedas contain all the necessary knowledge through which people, individually or as a society, can attain both material happiness and liberation.

There are six vedāṅgas (limbs of the Vedas) – jyotiśa (astronomy and astrology), candas (metrics), nirukta (etymology), siksa (pronunciation), vyakarana (grammar) and kalpa (ritual) – and four upavedas (secondary Vedas) – dhanurveda (art of war), sthapatya (architecture), āyurveda (the science of life; healing art) and gandharvaveda (musicology).

According to another classification, knowledge in the Vedas is divided into four sections: Saṃhitā, Brāhmaṇa, Aranyaka and Upaṇiṣad. The Saṃhitā section contains hymns, Brāhmaṇa ritualistic details, Aranyaka philosophical questions and Upaṇiṣad deep philosophical insights. Chandogya- and Kena-Upanishad, for example, belong to the Sama Veda, Īśa- and Katha-Upaṇiṣad to the Yajur Veda; Aitareya Brahmana belongs to the Ṛg Veda and Śatapatha Brahmana to the Yajur Veda.

In addition to the four Vedas, other treatises of Vedic knowledge dealing with specific topics have been written by great sages over time. The Upanisads represent the philosophy of the Vedas; the Vedānta-sūtra represents the essence of the Vedas and Upanisads, and the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam is the essence of the Vedānta-sūtra (also called the Brahma-sūtra) and is called the “ripe fruit on the tree of Vedic wisdom”. The latter two works were written by Śrīla Vyāsadeva, the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam under the special guidance of his guru Narada Muni. Vedavyāsa also wrote the great epic Mahābhārata, which is known as the fifth Veda. Chapter 25-42 of the Bhisma-Parva section in the Mahābhārata has achieved fame as the Bhagavad-gītā. The Bhagavad-gītā contains the spiritual essence of all the Vedas and has been highly regarded for millennia as the standard work of bhakti-yoga.

The Vedic history books, which contain historical records in not necessarily chronological order, are called Itihasas and Purāṇas. The best known Itihasas are Vedavyāsa's Mahābhārata and Valmiki's Rāmāyana. In them are narrated the deeds of great rulers, demigods and other important and extraordinary personalities of world history, which, from a so-called modern scientific point of view, seem to be products of a vivid imagination. Philosophical discussions, dharma, yoga and other topics also occupy an important space in these writings.

Other significant specific treatises of Vedic knowledge revealed throughout history include Manu-Saṃhitā, the Laws of Manu, in which the social and religious duties of the aryas (members of the Varnashrama social system) are set out; Viṣṇu-smṛti; Narada-smṛti; Yajñavalkya-smṛti; in the 16th century, the writings of the six saints Rupa, Jiva etc. Gosvamis; Vrindavana Das Thakuras Caitanya-Bhagavata; Kṛṣṇadasa Kavirajas Caitanya-Caritamrita and the writings of other Vaiṣṇavas revealing the highest confidential knowledge and in more recent times the writings of Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Thakur, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakur and Srila A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, to whom we owe an (almost) complete translation of the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam with extensive commentaries. He also translated the great work Caitanya-caritāmṛta of Kṛṣṇadasa Kaviraja into English. Srila Bhakti Raksak Sridhar Deva Goswami and Srila Bhaktivedanta Narayana Goswami have also written several excellent books on bhakti yoga. These are just a few examples from the treasure house of Vedic literature. Whatever has been revealed over time by great saints and sages and is yet to be revealed and does not contradict the core statements of the original Vedas is also recognised as Veda, i.e. it is considered an authentic source of Vedic knowledge.

The Vedic literature is so vast that today's scholars who are exclusively engaged in the study of the Vedic scriptures would find it difficult to study them all in the Sanskrit original in the course of a lifetime. To give an idea of the extent of Vedic literature, a few examples: Ṛg Veda originally consists of over 1000 hymns with hundreds of thousands of verses, Manusmṛti comprises approx. 2500 verses, Mahābhārata 100.000 verses, Rāmāyana 24.000, Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 18.000 verses and the Purāṇas together consist of over 300.000 verses, not all of which are extant today.

Studying the scriptures is one thing and understanding them correctly is another. Academic scholarship alone is of little use. In the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, the Supreme Lord instructs His devotee Uddhava in the following words:

“If someone becomes skilled in reading Vedic literature through meticulous study but makes no effort to fix his mind on the Personality of Godhead, his effort is like that of a man who works very hard to take care of a cow that gives no milk. In other words, the fruit of his arduous study of Vedic knowledge is effort itself, without any other tangible result. My dear Uddhava, he who cares for a cow that does not give milk; an unfaithful wife; a body that is totally dependent on others; useless offspring and wealth that is not used for the right purpose are certainly most miserable. Similarly, one who studies Vedic knowledge that is barren of my glory is most wretched.”
— Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 11.11.18-19

Those who study the Vedas (Vedic scriptures) with unauthorised, materialistic teachers cannot comprehend their conclusions and are merely wasting their time. One will hardly be able to gain a clear understanding of the Vedas at a secular university. The many speculations on the Vedas and commentaries on the Vedas are proof of this. It is not the purpose of the Vedas that one should study them and then speculate around, juggle with historical figures and write dissertations on how many times certain words were used in which parts, in which contexts, etc. The Vedas were written for the best benefit of all, but such exploitation benefits no one. The Vedas are universally recognised as the oldest scriptures and no other culture has ever produced comparable literature.

The Vedas are called śruti (“that which is received by hearing”) because they were formerly received by hearing, long before the invention of printing and copying machines, and scriptures based on the Vedas are called smṛti (“that which is remembered”)2


1 Some historians and researchers of Vedic literature cite the 17th century B.C. as the date of origin. On the basis of the constellations given by Vyāsadeva for the appearance of Kṛṣṇa, the exact year and day of the Lord's appearance can be determined. Kṛṣṇa performed His transcendental pastimes on this planet for 125 years. After that, Vyāsadeva composed his scriptures. He composed the Purāṇas before the Mahābhārata and the Mahābhārata before the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam. The Bhāgavatam was then spoken by Vyāsadeva's son Śukadeva Goswami to Mahārāja Parikṣit in the assembly of great sages. Mahārāja Parikṣit was the successor of the world ruler Mahārāja Yudhiṣṭira, who followed the Lord shortly after Śrī Kṛṣṇa's return to his eternal kingdom. This was at the beginning of the kali-yuga. According to revealed scriptures and astrological calculations, the kali-yuga began about 5000 years ago.

2 Tradition is also a valid definition for smṛti, because knowledge lives in and through tradition.