The most ancient and basic scriptures of Hinduism are known as ‘Vedas.’ Derived from the root ‘vid’ (= to know), they represent a vast body of religio-spiritual knowledge transmitted orally from generation to generation over the millennia. Hindu tradition ascribes to the sage Kṛṣṇa-Dvaipāyana, better known as Vyāsa, the systematization and editing of the vast Vedic literature with a view to preserving it for the posterity. He is said to have divided the Vedas into four parts and taught it to his four chief disciples viz., Paila, Vaiśampāyana, Jaimini and Sumantu. These four Vedas have been well-known as Ṛgveda, Yajurveda, Sāma-veda and Atharvaveda (vide Mahābhārata, Ādiparva 60.5; Bhāgavata 12.6.50).

The Atharvaveda, the last in the series, has also been called by several other names: Atharvaṇaveda, Atharvāṅgirasa, Āṅgirasa, Bhṛgvaṅgirasa, Bhṛgu-vistara, Brahmaveda, Bhaiṣajyaveda and Kṣattraveda.

The word ‘Atharvan,’ probably derived from ‘athar,’ an obsolete word for fire, might mean ‘the priest of fire.’ So, Atharvan may be the name of an ancient sage who ‘brought down fire from heaven’ and started the sacrificial rites here.

In the Hindu mythology, he is descri-bed as a son of Brahmā, the Creator, who introduced fire-rituals with soma and other materials. He is identified with Aṅgiras and also called Atharvāṅgirasa. It is also possible that the ṛṣis of the clans of Atharvan, Aṅgiras, Bhṛgu, Atharvāṅgirasa and Brahman were the ‘draṣṭāras’ of this Veda, i.e., the sages to whom the various hymns of this Veda were revealed. Hence the other names of this Veda.

The title ‘Brahmaveda’ could have been derived from the fact that it was related to the priest brahmā, the fourth of the four priests, the other three being hotā, adhvaryu and udgātā, connected with the first three Vedas in that order. In a more general sense it can also mean the Veda that helps in the attainment of Brahman.

The two names ‘Bhaiṣajyaveda’ and ‘Kṣattraveda’ have obviously been derived from the subject matter of the Veda which contains quite a bit of material on ‘bhaiṣajya’ (medicines and treatment) and ‘kṣattra’ (the warrior-class known as the kṣattriyas).

The Atharvaveda has some special features because of which it stands a little apart from the other three Vedas, especi-ally the Ṛgveda. It deals more with the things here and now, than the hereafter, and, the sacrifices which are a means to it. Major portion of this Veda is concerned with diseases and their cure, rites for prolonging life, rites for fulfilling one’s desires, building construction, trade and commerce, statecraft, penances and propitiatory rites and black-magic, though high philosophical ideas, much nearer to the thought pattern of the Upaniṣads, are also to be found. Even the literary style is more sophisticated. Hence some scholars believe that this work had not been admitted into the comity of Vedic literature for a long time. It was perhaps considered as a ‘scripture of the masses,’ not fit enough for admission into the ‘elite-group;’ and its sheer popularity might have forced the leaders of the society into admitting it as the fourth Veda and give its priests also an honourable place in sacrifices.

For the same reasons, it is opined that this Veda is chronologically posterior to the other three Vedas. Some modern scholars like C. V. Vaidya (vide History of Vedic Literature, p. 156) assign to it, the period 3000 to 2500 B. C. But, Vedic chronology is a rather hazardous subject and it is very difficult to fix the periods precisely.

From the ancient times, nine śākhās or branches of the Atharvaveda (Saṁhitā) are known to have existed. However, only two of them are extant: Pippalāda and Śaunaka. Of these, it is the latter that is available in a complete form.

This Veda is divided into four ‘prapāṭhakas,’ comprising 20 ‘kāṇḍas.’ Each kāṇḍa is again sub-divided into ‘sūktas’ and these sūktas, into ‘mantras.’ The details are as follows:

Prapāṭhakas Kāṇḍas Sūktas Mantras
I 1 to 7 433 2030
II 8 to 12 45 1573
III 13 to 18 43 1063
IV 19 & 20 215 1411

This gives us 6077 mantras in 736 sūktas spread over 20 kāṇḍas in 4 prapāṭhakas. However, due to the different methods adopted in grouping or classi-fying, the number of sūktas given by various scholars have varied from 598 to 759. But there is no difference in the number of the mantras.

The last kāṇḍa, i.e., the 20th, has borrowed heavily (to the tune of 90%) from the Ṛgveda Saṁhitā. It is opined that the kāṇdas 19 and 20, sometimes termed ‘Khilakāṇḍa,’ are later additions to this Veda.

Coming to the subject matter of the Saṁhitā of this Veda, we find that there is no systematic division of the same in the first twelve kāṇḍas. The last two again, deal with miscellaneous topics. A brief summary of the contents may now be attempted, under eight subject headings:

1. Bhaiṣajya Sūktas :

These sūktas which deal with disea-ses, their causes and cures, show a remarkable insight into the subject of health sciences. That is why this Veda is considered to be the precursor of Āyurveda or the Science of health and longevity. Sometimes, Āyurveda is listed as an Upaveda or subsidiary of the Atharvaveda. These sūktas contain many prayers for health and longevity. The various names of the parts of the body given here bespeak of an intimate knowledge of human ana-tomy. Several diseases like fever, leuco-derma, leprosy, jaundice, diabetes, dropsy, skin disorders, troubles of the ear, nose and throat, fracture of bones, diseases of the heart and tuberculosis, are mentioned and cures indicated. These diseases are caused by germs, violation of the laws of nature, anger of deities and malevolent spirits and sins committed previously. Apart from medicines and physical remedies, use of chants and charms was also in plenty. A deep knowledge of the herbs and their various medicinal properties can be inferred from many of the mantras.

2. Āyuṣya Sūktas :

These sūktas contain supplications for longevity and are to be uttered on auspicious occasions like caula (tonsure), upanayana (investiture with the sacred thread), godāna (gifting of cows) and so on. The desire to live the full span of life, viz., 100 years, is often expressed. One of the sūktas (kāṇḍa 17) prescribes the wearing of the ‘rakṣāsūtra’ (‘thread of protection’) on the body to attain longevity.

3. Pauṣṭika Sūktas :

Puṣṭi means worldly progress and welfare. These sūktas generally contain prayers for the blessings of deities like the Maruts, Parjanya and others so that there can be good rains and crops, and, works like house-building or agriculture or trade flourish well.

4. Ābhicārika Sūktas :

If the Pauṣṭika Sūktas are intended to bring prosperity, the Ābhicāraka Sūktas are aimed at destroying or harming enemies who obstruct our progress or try to destroy us. This is said to be achieved by pleasing or appeasing certain deities or spirits and getting one’s wishes fulfilled through them. This technique is called ‘yātu’ or ‘kṛtyā.’ The number of such sūktas is rather large. Destruction of one’s enemies including the lovers of one’s spouse, annihilation of evil spirits, mesmerizing others through whom one can get one’s desires fulfilled—these are some of the topics dealt with in these sūktas. The word ‘kṛṣṇendrajāla’ is sometimes used to indicate the type of black-magic rites depicted here. As opposed to this, the auspicious rites described in the Pauṣṭika Sūktas are called ‘śuklendrajāla.’

5. Prāyaścitta Sūktas :

These are concerned mainly with expiatory rites to offset the evil effects that may come as a result of non-perfor-mance or wrong performance of religious rites. Omens foreboding evil and the rites necessary to combat them are also described.

6. Strīkarma Sūktas :

These sūktas deal mainly with marri-age, love and allied topics. Rites that help in regaining the lost love of one’s spouse are also described.

7. Rājakarma Sūktas :

This section gives an account of the political system that obtained during those days. The king used to be elected by the people. National and social problems used to be discussed by or decided in a ‘samiti’, a parliament of the people. The Rājapurohita (Chief Priest of the State) had an enviable place in the affairs of the State. Prayers for victory in war and hymns expressing devotion to the Motherland given here are highly poetic and moving.

8. Brahmaṇya Sūktas :

These sūktas unfold the nature of Brahman, the Absolute. The philosophical ideas given here form a link between those of the Ṛgveda and of the Upaniṣads.

God, the Absolute, is designated here by various names such as Kāla, Skambha, Ucchiṣṭa and Vrātya which are rather peculiar to this Veda. From him the whole universe emerges and in him is it established. He is the lord of the whole creation. The universe has evolved out of him, because he willed it thus (vide 19.53.8). The sun is a symbol of his power and is called ‘Rohita,’ the ‘Red-One’. He is identi-fied with God himself. This Absolute is also identified with the Ātman.

The word ‘Vrātya’ found in this section has nothing to do with the people who had been without Vedic sacraments, the sense in which the word has been used in the dharmaśāstras. Here it repre-sents Brahman, the Absolute.

The Atharvaveda Saṁhitā gives us an interesting picture of the society of its times. The land in which the people lived extended from Gāndhāra (Afghanistan) to Magadha and Aṅga (Bihar and Bengal). The varṇa system had been well established. The first three vaṛṇas were called ‘Āryas’ and the fourth as ‘Śūdras.’ But people lived in harmony. Kings were powerful. Trade and commerce were prosperous though agriculture was their main stay. There are hints to show that the brāhmaṇas were powerful and had sometimes to face the wrath of the kṣattriya kings. The cow was highly venerated and godāna (gift of cows) was considered highly meritorious. There are references to the Rājasūya sacrifice and wars among kings. The institute of marriage was very similar to that of the Ṛgvedic times; so also the obsequial rites.

No Āraṇyaka of the Atharvaveda has come to light so far. Only one Brāhmaṇa has been discovered, the Gopatha Brāhmaṇa.

The three well-known Upaniṣads—the Praśna, the Muṇḍaka and the Māṇḍūkya—belong to this Veda.

(For details see under the respective titles.)

In conclusion it can be said that the Atharvaveda forms an important landmark in Vedic literature.