Vedas (from Sanskrit vid, to know) sacred Hindu scriptures. Traditionally, the hymns or words that comprise the vedas are believed to have come from God but through rsis such as Visvamitra and Bharadvaja. Thus the rsis were known as mantradrasta or those who could see these words emanating from God. Some of the rsis were women, such as Visvavara and Lopamudra. Another name for the vedas is shruti, something learnt by hearing. Before the vedas were written down, they were preserved in the memory and passed on orally from guru to disciple.

The vedas are also known as trayi or trilogy as Vyasadeva compiled scattered hymns into three books: Rg, Yajuh and Sama, for convenience of use in worship. They are also called Sanghita or collection. There is a fourth, somewhat later, veda, the Atharvaveda , some of the hymns of which were taken from the first three books. This part is not used in worship. There is another reason for referring to the vedas as trayi, as the hymns are divided into three parts on the basis of the metrical classification of the verses.

Oriental and western scholars differ widely regarding the date of the vedas. It is generally agreed, however, that the composition of the vedas was spread over a long period, that is to say, between 2,500-950 BC.

There are four kinds of texts in the vedas: mantra or sanghita, brahmana, aranyaka and upanisad. Mantras are composed mainly in verse except for a part of the Yajuhsanghita which is in prose. They are an important part of the vedas and consist of praise of the gods, prayers, etc. There is a slight difference between the mantras of the different vedas: thus, the mantras in the Rgveda invite the gods to respond to prayers, the Yajuhveda mantras invoke the gods, and the Samaveda mantras shower praises on them. The Brahmana is essentially an explication of the mantras. It is in prose and focuses on deeds. The Aranyaka is oriented towards both deeds and knowledge while the upanisad or vedanta is wholly oriented towards knowledge.

The subjects of the vedas are generally divided into two categories: praxis and theory. The first category contains descriptions of different gods and goddesses and the ways in which they must be worshipped. The second category is the essence of the vedas. It describes Brahma, his manifestations and how the universe was created and the relationship of the living world to him. It says Brahma is one, that he exists everywhere, and that the different gods are manifestations of his many powers. It is on the basis of this theory that Indian philosophy subsequently found its ultimate form in the Upanisads.

The vedas contain advice for common people in their daily lives. Traditional Hindu society and hinduism itself are based on the social rites of the vedas. Even today Hindu marriages and cremation of the dead are conducted on the basis of vedic rites. The vedas also provide a comprehensive picture of early Indian society and describe social rites, politics, economics, education, industry, agriculture and medicine. Rgveda, for example, gives a comprehensive picture of women';s education of the time, while Atharvaveda gives a detailed description of the practice of medicine. All this makes the vedas not merely indispensable religious books but documents illustrating ways of life touching on the contemporary life concerning politics, economics, society, literature and history. [Dulal Bhowmik]