The Vedas are said to be the oldest recorded knowledge of mankind. The belief is that the Vedas were not composed by men, but were cognitions of men, the ancient Rishis, about the fundamental truths of the universe. They were revealed to different Rishis, and are recorded in the four Vedas – Rig, Yajur (Krishna and Shukla), Sama, and Atharva Vedas.The Vedic literature is vast, and far exceeds the contents of the four and five Vedas. As an example, the Mahabharata, just one of the great epics closely associated with the Vedic literature, is nearly five times the size of Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey combined.
The Upanishads are great philosophical texts studied at the Veda Pathasalas along with the Veda. It is thought that originally 108 Upanishads existed. There are many branches that spring from the root of the four major Vedas, and include dissertations on medicine, astronomy and astrology, warfare, diplomacy, and many other topics, such as physical yoga, which is so popular all over the world now.
A special part of the Vedas has to do with how they are chanted. The meter – the up and down of the sound, is as important as the pronunciation. This is part of what guru and siksha – teacher and disciple – have preserved in unbroken tradition for thousands of years. The same Veda can be chanted in different meters. It can also be chanted in different order. For instance, the Rig Veda, chanted in regular method, takes perhaps 45 hours to recite. But in some “Ghana” methods, it might take 700 hours to recite! For thousands of years, it is believed the Veda was never written down, but passed down in a purely oral tradition.
The devangari script of the Veda is the “language of the gods”. “Gods” means the underlying intelligence supervising the universe. When chanted correctly, this intelligence is enlivened and produces remarkable benefits.
The Vedas are intended to serve a different purpose. They have to be learnt by heart, understanding the correct way of pronouncing the mantras by listening to the rendering of the mantras by the guru (teacher). The Veda mantras so learnt should become the guide in our daily life, in our Karmaanushtaana, Tapas, Isvara aaradhana, etc. If, in India, the Vedas retain their original vitality even today, it is because these hyms are being continuously repeated by students and teachers of the Vedas, and the purity of the sounds and accents of the words are retained in that process. It is only by practising the Vedic injunctions that we can obtain the grace of God, both for our individual welfare and for the welfare of the whole world. That is why the mere preservation of the Vedas in well-bound volumes cannot secure us the benefits for which they are intended.
In fact the Vedas are never intended to be written down and read. Veda Adhyayana implied hearing from the lips of the teacher and repeating after him. That is why in ancient Tamil classics, the Vedas are referred to as Ezhutaakkilavi , unwritten book. Veda Paatakaas, who learn from books, are included among the six classes of inferior scholars. The other five classes are those who recite the Vedas musically, those who recite very fast, those who shake their heads while reciting, those who do not know the meaning, and those who have a poor voice. This is made clear in the following verse
Geetee seeghree sirahkampee tatha likhita paatakah
anarthajnah alpakanthascha shadete paatakaadhamaah.
Veda adhyayana, without knowing the meaning thereof is like preserving the body without the soul.