The Rigveda precedes all other Hindu scriptures in age and sacredness. The name Rigveda is a compound of rik (verses of “praise”) and veda (book of “knowledge,” or “wisdom”). It comes to us in such a highly crafted language (Samskrita, Sanskrit) that it was believed to have been received by the Seven Sages (sapta-rishis) whose students would memorize each word, each cadence, each intonation.
Internal evidence suggests that it was composed by quite a few sages, who gave their names to individual hymns and collections, or chapters (s´uktas). These were organized into ten books (mandalas).
One recension consisted of 10,472 verses (riks) and 1017 hymns (s´uktas). These were all handed down orally, memorized exactly by each generation for more than a thousand—perhaps two thousand—years until finally written down.
Rigvedic hymns praised Indra, Agni, Soma, Sûrya, Brahmâ, Purusha, Prakritî, Varuna, Mitra, Ushas, and (briefly) Vishnu. The hymns presupposed very ancient stories or myths but did not spell them out; in spite of that, they contain a treasury of mythic themes, which were shaped and reshaped over the succeeding periods.
There are several theological-philosophical hymns, such as the Purusha S´ukta and the Nâsadiya S´ukta, that suggest a high level of reflexive thought, reminding the student of Hindu mythology to look for multiple meanings in the same passage—metaphor, allegory, nonliteral allusions.
This flexibility of Vedic thought encouraged later Hindu mythmakers to elaborate, conflate, and exchange quite freely the gods’ life stories and personal characteristics, timelines, epithets, achievements, and failings.