Philosophy 47 - 3.2.1 The Vedic Tradition

The earliest philosophical texts in India constitute the Vedic tradition. The four Vedas are the oldest of the Hindu scriptures. They are the Rigveda, the Samaveda, the Yajurveda, and the Atharvaveda. The four Vedas were composed between 1500 and 900 BCE by the Indo-Aryan tribes that had settled in northern India. The Vedas are also called Shruti, which means “hearing” in Sanskrit. This is because for hundreds of years, the Vedas were recited orally. Hindus believe that the Vedas were divinely inspired; priests were orally transmitting the divine word through the generations.

The Rigveda is the most ancient of the four Vedic texts. The text is a collection of the “family books” of 10 clans, each of which were reluctant to part with their secret ancestral knowledge. However, when the Kuru monarchs unified these clans, they organized and codified this knowledge around 1200 BCE. The Brahmanic, or priestly, culture arose under the Kuru dynasty (Witzel 1997) and produced the three remaining Vedas. The Samaveda contains many of the Rigveda hymns but ascribes to those hymns melodies so that they can be chanted. The Yajurveda contains hymns that accompany rites of healing and other types of rituals. These two texts shine light on the history of Indo-Aryans during the Vedic period, the deities they worshipped, and their ideas about the nature of the world, its creation, and humans. The Atharvaveda incorporates rituals that reveal the daily customs and beliefs of the people, including their traditions surrounding birth and death. This text also contains philosophical speculation about the purpose of the rituals (Witzel 1997).

The Later Texts and Organization

Later Hindu texts developed during the Vedic and post-Vedic periods were integrated into the four Vedas such that each Veda now consists of four sections: (1) the Samhitas, or mantras and benedictions—the original hymns of the Vedas; (2) the Aranyakas, or directives about rituals and sacrifice; (3) the Brahmanas, or commentaries on these rituals; and (4) the Upanishads, which consists of two Indian epics as well as philosophical reflections.

The Upanishad epics include the Bhagavad Gita (Song of the Lord), which is part of a much longer poem called the Mahabharata, and the Ramayana. The Mahabharata is an epic depicting the battles of the noble house of Bharata, while the Ramayana focuses on the ancient king Rama during his 14-year exile. There are 13 principal Upanishads and more than 100 minor ones, composed between 800 and 200 BCE in a mix of prose and verse. Upanishad derives from the Sanskrit words upa (near), ni (down), and shad (to sit), which comes from the fact that these texts were taught to students who sat at their teachers’ feet. Additionally, the term signifies that these texts reveal esoteric doctrines about the true nature of reality beyond the realm of sense perception. The Upanishads became the philosophical core of Hinduism.

Metaphysical Thought in the Vedic Texts

The Vedic texts state that through reflection on the self, one comes to understand the cosmos. Like the Greeks much later, these texts claim that there is a structural analogy between the self and the universe, with one sharing the form of the other. Through inner reflection on oneself, one can then understand the nature of the world.

Evening sky, with stars dominating the top portion of the image, low clouds on the horizon, and mountainous terrain at the bottom. A spot of electric lights creates a bright glow.
Figure 3.6 The Vedic texts state that reflection on the self can lead to knowledge of the cosmos, proposing that the two share the same form. (credit: “Nightfall” by Mike Lewinski/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

The Rigveda examines the origin of the universe and asks whether the gods created humanity or humans created the gods—a question that would later be posed by the Greek philosopher Xenophanes. More than half of the verses in the Rigveda are devoted to metaphysical speculation concerning cosmological theories and the relationship between the individual and the universe. The idea that emerges within Hinduism is that the universe is cyclical in nature. The cycle of the seasons and the cyclical nature of other natural processes are understood to mirror the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth among humans and other animals. Related to this conception is the philosophical question of how one puts an end to this cycle. The Hindus suggest that the answer lies in purification, with ascetic rituals provided as means to achieve freedom from the cycle of reincarnation.

Another area of similarity between the universe and humanity is that both are understood to have a hierarchical structure. Hindu theology assigns a rigid hierarchy to the cosmos, with the triple deity, Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva, standing above the other gods. India first developed its hierarchical caste system during the Vedic period. Vedic rituals cemented caste hierarchies, the remnants of which still structure Indian society today.


See the chapter on the emergence of classical philosophy for more on Hindu views of the nature of the self.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax