The earliest Hindu texts are known as The Vedas, and they were composed and performed orally for several centuries (generally believed to be from 1500 BCE to 1200 BCE). The word veda means knowledge or wisdom. There are four of them, and they are collectively referred to as Sruti, which means "that which is heard", and Samhita, which simply means "collection." These were the works brought by the Indo-Aryan people as they migrated into the Indus Valley.
The Vedas are believed to have been revealed by the gods to mankind (works revealed by the deities are known as sutras). To this day, the Rig Veda is considered the most holy of all Hindu texts, even though the role of those deities worshiped in the Rig Veda has diminished greatly (as you will see later). The hymns were handed down from their origins in the distant past until they were finally set down in writing as a collection somewhere around 900 BCE.
Where The Vedas Came From:
To better understand the Vedas, one needs to understand their historical context. Most believe that a group of Indo-Aryans came from the Russian Steppes or Central Asia to invade present day northern India, Pakistan, and Iran before 2000 BCE. They were a warring group with predominately male gods, and they conquered the native people of that area (who it is believed worshiped primarily an Earth Goddess and other female deities).
What The Rig Veda Contains:
Because of their successful battles, the hymns in the Rig Veda are primarily focused on celebrating the strength of the gods in helping to destroy the enemies of the invading Indo-Aryans. Indra is praised for smashing enemy forts, killing 30,000 foes in one battle, and destroying 50,000 foes in another.
The other hymns are concerned with asking for help in primarily worldly affairs, such as smiting one's enemies, obtaining wealth and ensuring good harvests. There is much praise and mention of Soma, which is a concept that is very difficult to understand. Soma appears to be a real plant that has intoxicating properties, as well as being a god and a "life force" that permeates all animate beings.
The Role of the Rig Veda in Modern Hinduism
Although being revealed by the gods makes them the ultimate religious authority, modern Hinduism has been more influenced by later religious works, such as the Upanishads.
For example, Indra is easily the most praised deity in the Rig Veda, with over one thousand hymns dedicated to him. Nevertheless, he was relegated to a minor deity in later Hindu works and his role in Hindu belief diminished over the centuries.
Likewise, the gods Agni, Soma, Surya, and Varuna are also highly spoken of, yet now enjoy only a minor status among deities. On the other hand, Vishnu receives very little attention in the Rig Veda, yet becomes one of the three main deities in later Hinduism and highly revered through his Avatars Krishna and Rama.
Further, the Hindu gods Brahma and Shiva, the two other deities who make up the later Hindu trinity along with Vishnu, are not even mentioned in the Rig Veda. In the world of today, the other Vedas (which deal with yoga and rituals) seem to have more of a lasting impact.