A Complete Picture Of The Ancient Vedic Texts Explained!

What follows is a brief, simplified synopsis of what constitute Vedic literature.

Veda means knowledge, and Vedic knowledge is aparuseya, originating from a transcendental source. The Vedas deal with both mundane and spiritual knowledge, but especially contain specific directions for spiritual realization being defined as knowledge of the Personality of Godhead.

There are three sources (prasthana-traya) of Vedic knowledge:

  • Sruti-prasthana (Upanishads and Vedic mantras ),
  • Smriti-prasthana ( Bhagavad gita, Mahabharata, Puranas etc.), and
  • Nyaya-prasthana (Vedanta philosophy).

All scientific knowledge of transcendence must be supported by sruti, smriti, and a sound logical basis (nyaya). Smriti and Nyaya always confirm what is said in the Sruti.




Material life is based on sense gratification. To cater to this aim, the Vedas mention three paths:

  1. The Karma-kanda path, or the path of fruitive activities meant to gain one promotion to higher planets. Using the method from the first five Vedangas, the Kalpa-sutras explain this path.


  1. The Upasana-kanda involves worshiping different controllers for promotion to their planets. The Agamas explain this path.


  1. The Jnana-kanda path involves realizing the Absolute truth in his impersonal feature in order to become one with Him. The Upanishads explain this path.


Although these three paths all come from the Vedas, the ultimate purpose of the Vedas is to gradually push one toward surrender in devotional service to Sri Krishna.


Sruti – “That Which Is Heard”. The Four Vedas and Their Corollaries

Rig – book of 1028 divine hymns in ten mandalas, praising the gods, mainly Indra and Agni, but mentioning thirty-one other gods, and asking benedictions for wealth, health, longevity, protection, and victory. Considered the oldest of the Vedas, it is the Veda from which the other three are derived.

Sama – over 1500 songs and chants with metrical instructions, derived mainly from the Rig Veda and rearranged to facilitate singing the hymns during sacrifices.

Yajur – sacrificial mantras along with ritual formulae and instructions for the construction of sacrificial arenas and other aspects of sacrificial performances for priests.

Atharva – 1200 of the 6000 verses have been derived from Rig Veda. Considered the last of the Vedas to be composed, it contains magical incantations and mantras not for sacrificial performance but for everyday life.

Vyasadeva compiled and then divided the Vedas between various philosophers so that they may be practically followed by less intelligent persons in the modes of passion and ignorance. The Bhagavatam states that he gave charge of each Veda to a different “professor”, as follows:

After the Vedas were divided into four divisions, Paila Rishi became the professor of the Rig Veda, Jaimini the professor of the Sama veda, and Vaisampayana along became glorified by the Yajur Veda. The Sumantu Muni Angira, who was very devotedly engaged, was entrusted with the Atharva Veda. And my father, Romaharsana, was entrusted with the Puranas and historical record. ( Srimad Bhagavatam 1.4.21-22)

These scholars developed and preserved their respective Veda, offering their understanding of the meaning of sacrifice, the hymns, and the prayers the Vedas contained, creating the Brahmanas. The Brahmanas were mainly for city-dwelling householders, containing all the rituals and sacrifices prescribed for such persons. From the Rig Veda came the Aitarya and Kaushitaki Brahmanas; from the Sama Veda came the Tandya, Shadvimsa, Chandogya, and Jaiminya Brahmanas; from the Yajur Veda came the Taittinya and Satapatha Brahmanas. The Brahmanas were followed by the “forest books”, the Aranyakas, which contained instructions for rituals and regulations to be practiced by renunciants, and which were then developed into the Upanishads.

The Upanishads supply the basis of philosophy and were available to all, whereas the four original Vedas remained mainly with the priests and scholars. Upanishad means “to receive knowledge while sitting near one’s teacher”, and these books contain conversations on the Absolute Truth between gurus and their disciples. The Upanishads basically negate the material conception and philosophically establish the transcendental understanding of the universe, and especially, the supremacy of the personal aspect of the Absolute Truth.

Samhita, literally “joined” or “collected”, is another name for the four Vedas after they were divided. The term Samhita was originally used to refer to the style of the recitation of the hymns and mantras. The Brahmanas and Upanishads, as explained above, provide commentaries on the Samhitas. The Bhagavata Purana further explains the division of the Vedas and their relation to the Samhitas as follows:

Srila Vyasadeva separated the mantras of the Rig, Atharva, Yajur and Sama Vedas into four divisions, just as one sorts out a mixed collection of jewels into piles. Thus he composed four distinct Vedic literatures. When lord Brahma first spoke the four Vedas with his four mouths, the mantras were mixed together like an unsorted collection of various types of jewels. Srila Vyasadeva sorted the Vedic mantras into four divisions (samhitas), which thus became the recognizable Rig, Atharva, Yajur and Sama Vedas.


SMRITI – “ That Which is Remembered ( or Understood) from What One Has Heard”

The Smriti is rooted in the Sruti, and as such, is considered along with Upanishads and the Brahmanas, to be a commentary on the original four Vedas.

As commentaries on the Upanishads, various sages developed the “Six Darsanas” or six philosophical views. All of the Darsanas consider the same philosophical problems central and share many basic ideas with one another and with Buddhism.

The six “Darsanas” are:

1. Karma ( or Purva) mimamsa (“Ritual” or “Former” investigation)

Main proponent: Jaimini Rishi

Main text: Jaimini’s Purva-Mimamsa-sutra

Basic philosophy: Karma – the law of action and reaction – is an automatic and independent universal force. If one does his duty and perfectly performs sacrifices according to Vedic prescriptions, then God is obliged to follow his own law of action and reaction and give one the results. Any separate worship of or devotion to God, therefore, is purposeless.


2. Uttara – mimamsa ( “later Investigation)

Main proponent: Vyasadeva

Main text: Vyasadeva’s Vedanta-sutra

Basic philosophy: Spiritual life begins with inquiry into the Absolute Truth.


3. Sankhya-yoga ( yoga of “ analysis of elements”)

Main proponent: Kapila, Devahuti’s son, taught Sankhya, but it was later co-opted by the atheist Kapila.

Basic philosophy: Uses three types of evidence, perception, inference, and sruti. Divides the universe into two main categories, purusa and prakriti, and then further divides it into the gunas, the elements, etc. The purpose of analysing the elements is to discern spirit from matter, understanding that spirit is the source of matter.


4. Yoga (linking with the Supreme)

Main proponent: Patanjali

Main text: Yoga-sutras

Basic philosophy: The Yoga-sutras focus on Krishna as Paramatma and the means to attain Him. Patanjali systemized yoga into eight steps (astanga-yoga): yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi


5.Vaisesika (specialized logic)

Main proponent: Kanada Rishi

Main text: Vaisesika-sutras

Basic philosophy: The visible universe is created from an original stock of atoms that are eternal.


6. Nyaya ( logic)

Main proponent: Gautama Rishi

Main text: Gautama-sastra

Basic philosophy: A systemized process meant to teach the correct method by which to engage in philosophical inquiry, the process of reasoning, and the laws of thought.


Other Smriti Literature

Agamas – lit., “ handed down, approaching, emanating” as in a tradition being handed down or one scripture emanating from another. The agamas are theological treatises containing practical instructions on how to worship the Lord, specifically in His deity form, through mantras, tantras, and yantras, including instructions on festivals, home worship, temple-building etc.

Dharma-sastras –Smriti commentation on Sruti, related directly to the Brahmanas, and containing approx. 100,000 texts. Among them is the famous Manu-samhita.

Mahabharata and Ramayana – texts that use narrative to teach philosophy. The history of “Great India”, particularly the Kuru dynasty, and the story of Lord Ramacandra respectively.

Puranas ( pura-nava = “old-new” – things that are as good as new but which have existed since ancient times”)  While the Upanishads are mainly philosophical texts, the Puranas form a compendium of social, cultural, religious, and political thought. There are eighteen major Puranas and eighteen minor Puranas. The major Puranas are divided into three groups based on the three modes of nature ( Sattva guna, Rajo Guna and Tamo guna) .