The Vedas (sacred teachings) represent the oldest and most important texts of Hinduism. The Aryans who invaded Northwest India around 1500 BC compiled them. These Vedic texts are collection of sacred literature that combine the Aryan nature-fire-soma religion and the native religion of the Indian people whom they conquered. This large body of sacred works, which evolved over five hundred years between 1000 and 500 BC, is divided into five samhitas (collections) separately designated: Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda, Artharvaveda, and the Upanishads. While the Rigveda is the oldest and most important of these text with some 1028 hymns praising the soma-fire-nature gods, which announced all the basic notions that would be more fully elaborated through more than three thousand years, the four companion books have also greatly impacted the Hindu beliefs and philosophy of the Indian people.
Each of the major works is accompanied by a sacred prose work called the Brahmanas to which are added commentaries known as Aranyaka and Upanishads. The veneration in which the Veda is held is reflected in their description as Sruti (that which is revealed orally by the Brahmana) to the Rishis, the inspired seers. The Yajurveda contains the Veda of prayers and sacrificial formulas. The Samsveda is the Veda of songs. The Artharvaveda is the Veda of priests; it contains a highly developed system of magic, spells, and divination; but for a long period of time this samhita was refused acceptance into the holy canon. Omitting the Upanishad temporarily, the Brahmanas contain the rules and explanations for ritual sacrifices; these rules were used by the priests in the worship of the fire god, Agni, and the sun god, Surya; the fire that burned during these religious rituals served as a communication between man the gods. The Aranyakas are known as the “forest texts,” because they were recited in the forests in deference to their esoteric and magical nature. However, the major purpose of the Aranyakas was to give the devotees instructions in the techniques of substituting symbols for the ritual sacrifices and by the use of meditation to perform them mentally. This tradition and its training formed a transition to the later development of the mystical, spiritual, and boldly speculative teachings of the Upanishads; further, it stimulated the eventual creation of the various systems of Yoga.
Returning to the Upanishads, it is apparent that they are unlike the Brahmanas and Aranyakas, because the commentaries that comprise what was to be known as the Upanishad were elevated into the Veda and made a part of the five sacred Sruti. The Upanishad is the Veda that most fully elaborates one of the most fundamental principles of Hinduism–the view that all gods are but an outgrowth of Brahman, the universal soul; and then in an epochal cosmic leap from heaven to earth declares that the same process applies to man; that each human soul, the atman, merges with and is one with this Brahmanic universal soul. One of the early major deities of the Rigveda was the god Varuna–the all-seeing god of justice and the guardian of cosmic order, or rita: From this attribution of Varuna evolves another fundamental concept of Hinduism-that order controlled not only the macrocosm but also the microcosm-and therefore for man there were controlling laws of samhara, karma, and moksa. While some sects have developed from the Vedic tradition that have separated themselves from the Hindu religion, such as Jainism, Saivism, Tantrism, and, even in and important sense, Buddhism, all, nonetheless, adhere to certain common beliefs and most worship the same gods embodied within the Vedic tradition.
Finally, the immense richness and the continuing profundity in much of the Vedic literature have contributed to it being one of the major religions of humankind. During the past several hundred years it has gained numerous adherents in the Western world, of which are philosophers, artists, religionists, spiritualists, and the lay public. This interest has currently accelerated to the point where scientists, particularly in the field of psychology have begun to study the entire Veda to discover what it can contribute to our cultures. A.G.H.
Riland, George, The New Steinerbooks Dictionary of Paranormal, New York, Warner Books, Inc., 1980, p. 325-326