This section of the FAQ covers questions about the ancient Vedic literatures.
Q: Could you tell me something about the Vedas and their chronological order?
A: The main body of the Vedic scriptures (the four Vedas, Upanisads, Puranas, Vedanta-sutra) were compiled by the sage Vyasa and his disciples 5000 years ago. Included in this compilation are the Bhagavad-gita and the Srimad-Bhagavatam (or Bhagavata Purana, as it is also called). These two titles are published by the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust.
There are more recent texts, like Sri Caitanya-caritamrta (also published by the BBT), which are written about 500 years ago. Such works as this are elaborations on the original texts.
Regarding the Upanisads, Brahmanas and Aranyakas, these are counted along with the four Vedas as sruti-sastra. Sruti-sastra are scriptures that "are to be heard" (sruti = hearing) by brahmanas. Sruti-sastra is actually the term that you mean when you ask me what are "the Vedas." The Vedas (knowledge, not a canon) include sruti-sastra, smrti-sastra (like Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Puranas) and nyaya-sastra (Vedanta-sutra). Sruti-sastra can be compared to law books. Smrti-sastra are compared to law journals, which record how the law books were applied in specific cases. Both are required.
Samhita means collection. The 1017 hymns of the Rg Veda are the Rg Veda Samhita, or collection of Rg Vedic hymns. The mantras are the lines of these hymns that begin with the sacred syllable om. Wherever om is uttered, there a mantra begins. That's all. Simple.
The Brahmanas and Aranyakas are the directions for the application of these mantras by householders and vanaprasthas. Householders follow the Brahmanas; vanaprasthas (who've retired from household life to the forest, or vana) follow the Aranyakas (aranya also means forest).
The important thing is that one should receive the Vedic knowledge from the disciplic succession (guru-parampara). It is a spiritual science, not a hobby. For instance, if you want to become a neurosurgeon, you must undergo a rigorous training in a recognized medical school for many years. You cannot simply read a few books on your own and then hang a sign out in front of your house, "Rick Tickle, Brain Surgeon."
Personally, I do not see what the importance is of a time perspective on Vedic knowledge, since from the start the premise is that it is eternal. If you are thinking that Vedic knowledge is a product of relative historical and cultural factors, you will certainly miss the real message it has to offer. The whole enterprise of Western Indology has attempted to relativize Vedic knowledge within the context of mundane history. But that attempt is very misguided. Indologists simply guess dates when they think the four Vedas, the Puranas, and so on were written. They do not accept that they were written 5000 years ago. But they have no scientific proof of other dates either. They just have their opinions. We, who follow the system of guru-parampara, do not accept these opinions. They are simply the speculation of unenlightened men.
Q: What does Veda refer to in regards to the Vedic scriptures?
A: Indologists count the texts of the Vedas differently than we Gaudiya Vaishnavas do. But they don't agree with each other either on how the Vedas are to be counted. What that proves, I don't really know. I have an indologist friend, trained at the Benares Hindu University, who is a teacher at the University of Bonn in Germany. He agrees with me (though he's not a devotee) that veda really means only knowledge. It does not mean a canon of certain texts. The question of what is Vedic is not to be settled by this or that collection of books. It is settled by the guru: acarya mam puruso veda, so states the Chandogya Upanisad -- one who follows the acarya, only he knows what is veda. What we know as veda is that knowledge given by Brahma, Narada, Vyasa, Sukadeva, Madhva Muni, Lord Caitanya and Srila Prabhupada. It is said, pratyaksanumanabhuam bhagavate siddhanta eva gariyan vijnanamayatvat sarvasiddhantasrayatvacca: The Srimad-Bhagavatam surpasses all other pramana (evidence), because all Vedic siddhantas (conclusions) have taken shelter in its pages. To know what is veda means to know Srimad-Bhagavatam.
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