The Ṛgveda (ऋग्वेद)
The oldest scripture of Hinduism, the Ṛgveda is compound of the word Ṛc – a hymn of praise, and veda – knowledge.
All Hindu scripture is divided into two categories. The ‘Shrutī’ literature – that which was ‘heard’, and the ‘Smritī’ literature – that which is remembered. Roughly, these two types of literature correspond to ‘revelation’ (Shrutī) and ‘tradition’ (Smritī).
The core of the ‘Shrutī’ literature is the ‘Veda’. Usually when the word Veda is used, it refers to the entire body of Vedic literature (including the Upaniśads). However, when the name of a specific Veda is used, it generally refers to the samhitā, collection of hymns, that comprise the Veda. Thus the term Ṛgveda usually means the Ṛc Samhitā or the Ṛgveda Samhita. The term ‘four Vedas’ thus are the four samhitās namely, the Ṛc, Sāma, Yajus and the Atharva.
Some of the few existing manuscripts of the Ṛgveda, from the archives of the Bhandarkar Institute of Oriental Research, Pune, including one written on birch bark.
The Ṛgveda comprising songs and hymns praising the Vedic deities is the oldest of the samhitās. It is estimated that the Ṛgveda was composed between 1800 BCE to 1200 BCE, a date of about 1500 BCE being the current consensus.
Though writing is found in India in the form of the Brahmi script from the 3rd Century BCE, the Ṛgveda was probably not written down until the late Gupta period circa 6th Century CE. It is remarkable that was preserved with unparalleled fidelity for more than two millennia by oral tradition alone.
The Ṛgveda has 1028 hymns (the suktas) arranged in 10 books called mandalas. Many of these books are named after the clan of Brahmins descended from the seer (Ṛśī) who ‘heard’ the hymns.
The suktas of the Ṛgveda mostly comprise praises of exploits and achievements of the Vedic deities. A large Vedic mythology can be inferred from the Ṛgveda but is not explicitly narrated. However, some suktas serve as an indication of future developments in Vedic thought along two different lines, ritualism and philosophical speculation – especially the highly popular and often quoted Nāsadiya Sukta and Hiraṇyagarbha Sukta.