Yeah, I know that’s a very odd title right there.
I’ll be honest. I’m someone who likes studying cultures and religions just for fun. (All the stuff I’m posting here? Definitely not part of my school curriculum.) Aside from Judaeo-Christianity and the ancient Near East I’m particularly interested in south Asian religions like Hinduism and Buddhism. Part of it stems from watching a tad too much Bollywood (and Kollywood and Tollywood, etc.) ‘mythologicals’ featuring gods and heroes with a lot of arms and heads saving the world now and again from demons and evildoers who mess up the cosmic balance. Part of it stems from currently living in an historically Shinto-Buddhist country - though to be fair, modern Japan is highly secular and religion doesn’t really play much of a part of everyday life.
I’m gonna focus on Hinduism and the ‘scriptures’ it reveres, the four Vedas. No, I’m gonna go into detail about the contents here - I’m going to compare the way the Vedas are transmitted over time with how our own Scriptures are transmitted over time. The way these two are handed down provide quite a nice contrast if you ask me.
First off, what exactly are the Vedas? The Vedas (from the Sanskrit word meaning “knowledge” or “wisdom”) are a large body of ancient Indian texts (hymns, incantations, ritual formulas), composed in the language of the ancient Indo-Aryans - Vedic Sanskrit. The Vedas constitute the oldest layer of Sanskrit literature and are among the oldest sacred texts still used today. The Vedas are also the most ancient extensive texts in an Indo-European language (the same language family as Armenian, Albanian, Iranian, Latin or Greek!), and so are invaluable in the study of comparative linguistics.
(1) The Rigveda (from ṛc “praise, verse”), which contains the hymns and litanies recited by the hotar, the presiding priest who recited the invocations. Most of these hymns are invocations and eulogies of various Vedic deities such as Indra (the heroic national god of the Indo-Aryans and the head of the pantheon) or Agni (the god of fire/the sacrificial fire itself) or Soma (the mysterious sacred beverage and the plant it was made from), although there are a few hymns with secular, speculative, and even possible historical matter;
(2) The Yajurveda (from yajus “sacrificial formula”), containing formulas to be recited by the adhvaryu, the priest in charge of the physical details of the sacrifice);
(3) The Samaveda (from sāman “melody”), a compilation of hymns to be sung by the udgatar, the chanter of hymns set to certain melodies;
(4) The Atharvaveda (from Atharvan, the name of an ancient sage or rishi), a collection of spells, incantations and hymns. Unlike the other three Vedas (which is concerned entirely with the priestly elite and sacrificial ritual), the Atharvaveda has a more popular character, which led to it having a very ambiguous status early in its history.
(No, Ayurveda - ancient Indian medicine - isn’t one of the four. ;))
There is an overlap in the contents of the four Vedas - some hymns and detached verses taken from one could be found in the other. Take for example the Samaveda; in it verses from the Rigveda have been transposed and re-arranged, without reference to their original context and order, to suit the rituals in which they were to be employed.
Based on philological and linguistic evidence, scholars believe that the Vedas were composed during the Vedic period (about 1700-1000 BC), corresponding to the late Bronze Age and the early Iron Age in India. Of the four, the Rigveda - composed by different clans of rishis, Indo-Aryan poets and sages - is the oldest. In traditional Hindu belief, however, the Vedas are considered to be coeval with the universe itself (anādi “without beginning”): in fact, they are considered to be apauruṣeya (“not of human agency”) and śruti (“what is heard”), distinguishing them from other sacred Sanskrit literature, which are smṛti (“what is remembered”). In other words, the Vedas are traditionally considered to have been a direct revelation ‘heard’ by the rishis who then translated the knowledge they had heard into something understandable by humans and passed it down unadulterated from generation to generation. This is in contrast to smṛti, myths and law codes which ordinary people had put into memory and passed down to others (epics like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana belong in this category); unlike the Vedas, these stories could and did change a little in the process of transmission, so smṛti is not as highly respected as śruti is.
The texts were standardized and codified in the following centuries, culminating at about the 6th century BC. It is unknown when they were finally committed to writing, but this probably was at some point after 300 BC, when writing first began to appear in India. Before then these texts were transmitted by oral tradition alone, and even after writing was introduced, oral transmission continued. This is going to be our focus.