sacred hymn or verse composed in archaic Sanskrit and current among the Indo-European-speaking peoples who entered India from the Iranian regions. No definite date can be ascribed to the composition of the Vedas, some of which possess high literary merit, but the period of about 1500–1200 BC would be acceptable to most scholars. The hymns formed a liturgical body that in part grew up around the cult of the soma ritual and the sacrifice. They extolled the hereditary deities, who for the most part personified various natural and cosmic phenomena, such as fire (Agni), sun (Surya and Savitr), dawn (Usas), storms (the Rudras), war and rain (Indra), honour (Mitra), divine authority (Varuna), and creation (Indra, with some aid of Vishnu). Hymns were composed to these deities, and many were recited or chanted during rituals.
The foremost collection, or Samhita, of such hymns, from which the hotr (chief priest) drew the material for his recitations, is the Rigveda. Sacred formulas known as mantras were recited by the priest responsible for the sacrificial fire and the carrying out of the ceremony; these mantras and verses in time were drawn into Samhitas known collectively as Yajurveda. A third group of priests, headed by the udgatr (“chanter”), performed melodic recitations linked to verses that, although drawn almost entirely from the Rigveda, came to be arranged as a separate Samhita, the Samaveda (“Veda of the Chants”). To these three Vedas—Rg, Yajur, and Sama, known as the trayi-vidya (“threefold knowledge”)—is added a fourth, the Atharvaveda, a collection of hymns, magic spells, and incantations that represents a more folk level of religion and remains partly outside the Vedic sacrifice.
The entire corpus of Vedic literature—the Samhitas
and the expositions that came to be attached to them, the Brahmanas,
the Aranyakas, and the Upanishads—was considered Sruti,
the product of divine revelation. The whole of the literature seems to have been
preserved orally (although there must early have been manuscripts to assist
memory). Even today several of these works, notably the three oldest Vedas,
are recited with subtleties of intonation and rhythm that have been handed down
from the early days of Vedic
religion (q.v.) in India.