The Vedas are the ultimate source of all of Indian thought and culture. Composed by seers over centuries in an age that is difficult to date, they were passed on by the aural tradition for several generations before they came to be written down. Though time estimates of their origin vary greatly, the centuries between 1500 and 500BCE is generally believed to be the period of their compilation. Newer research and evidence suggests an even earlier date, though.
It is reasonable to believe that in the process of their compilation over several generations, a great body of the literature may have been lost simply because it was never written down. Scholars like Max Muller surmise that what survives today is only a tenth of what may have existed in the age of its creation.
The texts refer to older and newer periods just as they mention ancient and recent Rishis, a clear indication of the great lengths of time over which they were composed.
The Rishis seem to have composed verse as a direct result of their spiritual and other experience. These verses were passed on in the family and school of the Rishi who composed it. Each Rishi family may therefore be considered a school. The most important of these Rishis are Atri, Bharadvaja, Gritsamada, Kanva, Vasishtha, Vamadeva and Vishvamitra.
From this great body of aural material that was composed over time across the Vedic nation, selections came to be compiled for the purposes of ritual practice and worship. This selection or collection of verses is what is known as the Samhita. The first Samhita, therefore, was the Rigveda Samhita.
In the form in which we have them today, the Vedic Samhitas are a collective work from different chronological layers, collections of not just verses in praise of gods that deify nature’s forces; invocations to other deities for health, wealth and well-being; but also songs and ballads, poetry of exquisite beauty and speculative philosophy of great sophistication that include concepts like the ultimate reality and the origin of existence.
The Vedic Samhitas we have today can be seen as having evolved over four different stages, beginning with the earliest stage where the early verses were composed. This was followed by their proliferation in the Rishi families. The third was the compilation of selected verses to form the Rigveda Samhita and the fourth, the compilation of the three other Samhitas – Yajus, Sama and Atharva from the original Rigveda Samhita.
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