The sacred books of the Hindus present a number of problems which have yet to be solved. These have been tackled by various scholars from time to time, but their essential enigma remains.
In the past, there was a great awakening of interest in Sanskrit amongst European and American scholars. But the results have fallen short of expectation. And philosophy and religion have given place to history, philology, anthropology, archaeology and antiquarian research. The modern scholar would not deny the moral and spiritual significance of the sacred books, but they are for him but relics of a bygone era with values and problems far removed from his own.
The Vedas are believed to be the earliest record of the genius of man. But however important to a study of antiquity, it would not be easy to define their moral and spiritual worth or contribution to the solution of the problems of life.
They are said to be four in number; namely Rig, Sama, Yajur and Atharva. Of these the first is the oldest and appears to be but a collection of hymns addressed to the gods. Some of these hymns are unique in their search of the infinite, while a number of them have all the characteristics of great poetry.
But even a modern Indian philosopher is obliged to refer to them as consisting of half formed myths or crude allegories, obscure groupings of immature compositions. Although he also finds a freshness and simplicity and an intellectual charm about these first efforts of the human mind to comprehend and express the mystery of the universe.
The Sama Veda is said to be purely liturgical. Containing a number of hymns taken from the Rig Veda, and meant to be sung at sacrifices. The Yajur like the Sama, is also said to serve the same purpose along with a number of sacrificial formulae. While the Atharva, which appears to be a later addition was not included among the original set. And is said to contain a number of incantations and charms against evil and disease.
The student of the Vedas have not found it easy to understand them. Both Indian and foreign scholars have formed their own opinions, ranging from their being "primeval childlike naive prayer of the Rig Veda" to "an allegorical representation of the attributes of the Supreme Deity". While some would regard them as sacrificial compositions of a primitive race which attributed great importance to ceremonial rites. At the same time the Rig Veda is said to be a work representing the thought of successive generations of thinkers. And therefore contain within it different strata of thought.
Some have opined that the Rig Veda belongs to the early period of human thought. When the spiritual and psychological knowledge of the race was concealed in a veil of concrete and material figures and symbols. Which protected the sense from the profane, and revealed it to the initiated. One of the leading principles of the mystics was the sacredness and secrecy of self knowledge, and the true knowledge of the gods. They thought that this wisdom was perhaps dangerous for the ordinary human mind. Or in any case liable to perversion, misuse and loss of virtue, if revealed to the vulgar and unpurified spirits. Hence, they favoured the existence of an outer worship, effective but imperfect, for the profane. And an inner discipline for the initiated. They clothed their language in words and images which had equally a spiritual sense for the elect, and a concrete sense for the mass of ordinary worshippers. The Vedic hymns are conceived and constructed on these principles.
The Vedas are the earliest of the sacred books of the Hindus, and all other works are said to be derived from them. Each Veda is divided into two principle parts, which are Mantra and Brahmana. The former is said to be a collection of hymns addressed to a number of gods and is called Samhita. While the latter consists of two parts, which are Vidhi or directions relating to sacrifices and Arthavada or explanation of legends connected with the Mantras. It is said that out of the Brahmana arose two sections of Vedic literature, the Sutras or aphoristic rules relating to the performance of all kinds of sacrifices; And the Upanishads, believed to be an exposition of the secret doctrine of the Vedas, and the source of all the great systems of Hindu philosophy.
The Vedas with their Mantra, Brahmana and Upanishads are called Sruti. Believed to be revealed knowledge orally communicated to some privileged persons by the Supreme Spirit. They are said to have heard and not composed it themselves, and it is for this reason that these works are called Sruti or "that which is heard". This was succeeded by a vast body of literature, classified as Smrti, for it was believed to have been remembered, as signified by the word. It is said to include the six "Vedangas" or limbs of the Vedas, the Sutras, including those of the six systems of philosophy, the law books of Manu, the great epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the eighteen Puranas and the Nitisastras.