Vedas: Gods, Sages and Yajnas
Gods, Sages and Yajnas in Vedas
By Swami Samarpanananda
Ramakrishna Mission: Vivekananda Education and Research Institute
Belur Math, Howrah, W. Bengal
YouTube Channel: Indian Spiritual Heritage
This work offers a bird’s eye view on the Vedic gods, sages and the Yajnas that the sages prescribed.
Savitr: The word Savitr is derived from the root su, which means to stimulate. The God of Gaytri mantra, who has been meditated upon by millions for thousands of years is pre-eminently a golden deity whose car and its pole are golden. Shining with the rays of the sun, yellow-haired, Savitr raises up his light continually from the east. His ancient paths in the air are dustless and easy to traverse, and on them he protects his worshippers; for he conveys the departed spirit to where the righteous dwell. He removes evil dreams, and makes men sinless. He is also connected with the evening as well as the morning; for at his command night comes and he brings all beings to rest.
Savitr is often distinguished from Surya. In some passages, he is said to shine with the rays of the Sun, to impel the sun, or to declare men sinless to the sun. But in other passages it is hardly possible to keep the two deities apart.
Dyāvā-prthivi: Heaven and Earth are the most frequently named pair of deities in the Rigveda. They are also separately addressed as 'father' and 'mother', since they have made and sustain all creatures; they are also the parents of the gods. At the same time they are in different passages spoken of as themselves created by individual gods.
They never grow old. They are great and wide-extended; they are broad and vast abodes. They grant food and wealth, or bestow great fame and dominion. Sometimes moral qualities are attributed to them. They are wise and promote dharma. As father and mother they guard beings, and protect from disgrace and misfortune.
Rudra: Just like Visnu, Rudra occupies a subordinate position in the Rigveda. It was much later that he became quite prominent in his form as Shiva. The epics and the Puranas drew the character heavily from that of Rudra. The famous mantra traymbakam yajamahe used universally as prayer to Lord Shiva, comes in the Vedas itself.
Rudra has beautiful lips and wears braided hair. His colour is brown, his form is dazzling, he shines like the radiant sun, is arrayed with golden ornaments, and wears a glorious necklace, drives in a car, holds the thunderbolt in his arm, and discharges his lightning shaft from the sky; but he is usually said to be armed with a bow and arrows, which are strong and swift.
He is fierce and destructive, strongest of the strong, swift, unassailable, unsurpassed in might, young and unaging. He is easily invoked and auspicious (siva). He not only preserves from calamity, but bestows blessings. His healing powers are often mentioned; he has a thousand remedies, and is the greatest physician of physicians
Mitra: The association of Mitra with Varuna is so intimate that he practically has no individuality of his own. His very name means 'friend', or 'ally'. In the Persian religion 'Mithra' is a sun-god or a god of light specially connected with the sun. The dual invocation of Mitra-Varuna goes back to the Indo-Iranian period, for Ahura and Mithra are coupled in the Avesta. In the Brahmanas, Mitra is connected with day, and Varuna with night.
Uttering his voice, Mitra marshals men and watches the tillers with an unwinking eye. Like Varuna, he is upholder of laws, and Visnu takes his three steps by the laws of Mitra
Brihaspati: Brhiaspati is a purely Indian god, and is also called 'Brahmana pati'-- 'Lord of prayer'. Addressed as the father of the gods, he is said to have blown forth their births. Like Agni, he is the priest of the gods. He is the generator of all prayers, and without him sacrifice does not succeed. His song goes to heaven, and he is associated with singers. He is said to help and protect the pious man, to prolong life, and to remove disease.
In the later literature, he plays a very important role as the priest of gods, and tries to defeat the power of Shukracharya, the priest of the asuras.
Usas: Decked in gay attire like a dancer, clothed in light, Usha (early morning) appears in the east and unveils her charms. Rising resplendent as from a bath she comes with light, driving away the darkness and removing the black robe of night. She is young, being born again and again, though ancient. Shining with a uniform hue, she also wastes away the life of mortals.
She drives away evil dreams, evil spirits, and the hated darkness. She discloses the treasures concealed by darkness, and distributes them bountifully. She awakens every living being to motion. When Usas shines forth, the birds fly up from their nests and men seek nourishment. Day by day appearing at the appointed place, she never infringes the ordinance of nature and of the gods. She renders good service to the gods by awakening all worshippers and causing the sacrificial fires to be kindled.
Usas is closely associated with the Sun. Since she precedes the Sun, she is occasionally regarded as his mother. She is also called the sister, or the elder sister of Night and their names are often conjoined as a dual compound (usasa-nakta). As the sacrificial fire is kindled at dawn, Usas causes Agni to be kindled, and Agni goes to meet the shining Dawn as she approaches.
Usas brings the worshipper wealth and children, bestowing protection and long life.
Parjanya: The name literally means 'rain-cloud', but he is frequently described as a bull that quickens the plants and the earth. The shedding of rain is his most prominent characteristic. He flies around with a watery car, and loosens the water-skin. In this activity he is associated with thunder and lightning. He is in a special degree the producer and nourisher of vegetation, and by implication Earth is his wife.
Pusan: His individuality is vague, and his traits are scanty. He wears braided hair, a beard and carries a golden spear. His car is drawn by goats instead of horses. With his golden aerial ships, Pusan acts as the messenger of Surya. He sees all creatures clearly and at once. He also conducts the dead on the far-off path of the Fathers, is a guardian of roads, removing dangers out of the way, protects cattle and brings them home unhurt and driving back the lost.
Āpas: These are the waters who follow the path of the gods. The deification of the Waters is pre-Vedic, for they are invoked as apo in the Avesta also.
Indra, armed with the bolt, dug out a channel for them, so they never infringe his ordinances. They are celestial as well as terrestrial, and the sea is their goal. King Varuna moves in their midst, looking down on the truth and the falsehood of men. They are also mothers to Agni. They give their auspicious fluid like loving mothers, and they purify, carrying away defilement. They also cleanse moral guilt, the sins of violence, cursing, and lying.
Vísve devāh: The comprehensive group called Vísve devāh occupies an important position. Probably it is an artificial sacrificial group intended to include all the gods in order that none should be left out during sacrifices, or prayer.
Yama: Yama is the chief of all the dead whose last rites were performed according to Vedic rites. He is not expressly designated a god, but only a being who rules over the dead. His father is Vivasvat, and he is said to have chosen death of his own will to find out the path for many, to where the ancient Fathers passed away. Thus, death is the path of Yama.
As the first father of mankind and the first of those that died, Yama appears to have originally been regarded as a mortal who became the chief of the souls of the departed. He is associated with Varuna, Brihaspati, and especially Agni, the conductor of the dead, who is called his friend and his priest.
Yama dwells in the remote recess of the sky. In his abode, which is the home of the gods, he is surrounded by songs and the sound of the flute.The owl and the pigeon are mentioned as his messengers, but the two four-eyed, broad-nosed, bridled dogs, sons of Sarama are his regular emissaries. They guard the path along which the dead man hastens to join the Fathers who rejoice with Yama. They watch men and wander among the peoples as Yama's messengers, but not in a bad sense. Yama is invoked to lead his worshippers to the gods, and to prolong life.
Vāta: Vata's name is connected with forms of the root va, (blow), which is also used for the name of Vayu. Vata is the breath of the gods, and like Rudra he has a hand in healing and prolonging life. He has the treasure of immortality in his house. His activity is chiefly mentioned in connection with the thunderstorm.
Purusa: There are seven hymns dealing with the creation of the world as produced from some material. In the well-known Purusa sukta, the gods are the agents of creation, while the material out of which the world is made is the body of Purusa, the God. The act of creation is here treated as a sacrifice in which Purusa is the victim, whose body parts became the universe. The Vedas sprung from him, the animals and plants were born of him, and the castes of men came out of him.
Pitras: They are the blessed dead who dwell in the third heaven. The term as a rule applies to the first ancestors who followed the ancient paths.
The Pitaras are classed as higher, lower, and middle, as earlier and later, who though not always known to their descendants, are known to Agni. They receive oblations as their food and are entreated to hear, intercede for, and protect their worshippers, and besought not to injure their descendants for any sin humanly committed against them. They are invoked to give riches, children, and long life to their sons, who desire to be in their good graces.
The path trodden by the Fathers (pitr yāna) is different from that trodden by the gods (deva yāna).
Vāchaspatyam, the ancient Sanskrit to Sanskrit dictionary, defines rishi as: rishati jnānena samsāra-pāram (one who reaches beyond this transmigratory world by means of spiritual knowledge). Etymogically, the word may also mean "to see" or "to realise" spiritual truths.
Going through the Vedas, we realise that it would have been impossible for an ordinary poet, or even an spiritual aspirant to have the wisdom that have been recorded in the Vedas. Commenting on the special attainments of the Vedic rishis, Max Muller said that "these sages climbed up to the heights where their lungs only could breathe, and where those of other beings would have burst." These greats followed reason and meditation wherever it led them, no matter at what cost. They just did not care if all their best beliefs were smashed, never cared for what society of them, or talked about them. That is how they became what they became.
Coming to more realistic plane, we find each hymn of the Rig Veda traditionally attributed to a specific rishi, and the "family books" (Rigveda: 2-7) are said to have been the spiritual wisdom received by the various families. The main families, listed by the number of verses ascribed to them are:
Angirasas: 3619 (especially Mandala 6); Kanvas: 1315 (especially Mandala 8); Vasishthas: 1267 (Mandala 7) ; Viswamitras: 983 (Mandala 3); Atris: 885 (Mandala 5); Bhrgus: 473; Kashyapas: 415 (part of Mandala 9); Grtsamadas: 401 (Mandala 2); Agastyas: 316; and Bharatas: 170.
Of these, three families stand out as connected with fire sacrifices: Angirasaa, Atharvan, and Bhrigu. As sages, they carried an aura around them, and were respected as divine, having humbled even the gods in their feud with them. Some other sages like Atri were deified to be made one of the seven sages of saptarshi mandala.
Manu, as a sage is the living equivalent of what is Yama for the dead. He is also the son of Vivasat, as Yama is, and is considered to be the progenitor of the human race. His name is connected more with the deluge during which the Lord came as Mina Avatara.
Viswamitra and Vasistha became more famous as the sage connected with the life of Sri Ramachandra. However, their feud and rivalry became so famous that these stories and their outcome have entered the Indian lore.
Not much is known about the Vedic sages other than what we get in the epics and the Puranas. The little that we gather about them from the later works makes us feel that they considered themselves mere instruments in receiving the divine wisdom and knowledge for the benefit of the mankind.
Despite their impersonal way of life in which rituals and meditation occupied their nearly whole of waking hours, they unknowingly left behind a way of life that was later on emulated by the Brahmins for centuries to come.
Rishikas -- The Female sages
We come across quite a few names of the rishikas (women Rishis) in the Vedas. Probably none of them was the composers of the Vedic mantras, but they were definitely samhitākartās, who assisted in the collection of the Veda mantras. Since the sages normally led a married life, and had children who grew up in the Vdic atmosphere, it was quite natural to have some great rishikas.
Some famous great female sages are: Maitreyi who was Yajnavalkya's wife; Gargi, who challenged Yajnavalkya with her sharp questions, Lopamudra (wife of Agastya), who has two mantras (RV I.179.1-2) attributed to her, Roamasa the wife of Svanya , Visvavara belonging to the Atri family, Aangirasi Sarasvati of Angirasa family, Apala of the Atri family, Yami Vaivasvati, Sraddha, Ghosha, Urvasi, Sarama, Poulomi, and others. Most of them are mentioned in the Rigveda.
Yajna: Vedic rites and sacrifices
Broadly speaking, religious acts of an individual, or of a group is yajna (religious sacrifice).
Under normal conditions, every act of a person is mundane, and at times, even profane. But when those very acts are performed with a religious outlook, they becomes yajna. Even the simple act of breathing can be transformed into a sacrifice (Gita, IV.29) when it is performed with proper attitude. Thus yajna (sacrifice) is the consecration of the mundane to the divine. It is the transformation of the profane into the sacred; is the bridge between the material and the spiritual; and is the instrument to convert the belittled to the exalted.
For a person to be spiritual, his acts have to be spiritualised, and for that every act of his has to become a yajna. That is why even the act of creation by Purusha (God) was perceived as a yajna by the Vedic sages, and was described so (Purusa Sukta, Rig Veda X. 90) . But, it is impossible for a common man to treat every act of his as a yajna, which means that an easier way has to be found for his upward journey towards spirituality.
It was to solve this problem that the Vedic sages came up with the solution of public and private yajna for all. Soon they had framed methods by which the life of an individual and the society could be regulated by sacrificial acts. In birth, death, marriage, acquisition, renunciation, sorrow, joy, victory, loss -- there came up a yajna.
Slowly these yajnas diversified into sacraments (samskaras), and sacrifices (offerings and oblations). The sacraments for the individual's private life (like marriage, sacred thread ceremony, funeral rites etc.) grew up to forty in number, but was later brought down to eighteen, then to sixteen in the Smriti period, and finally to ten in the Tantra system. Most Hindus now follow these ten samskaras. A brief overview of the samskaras will be given in "An Overview of the Smritis " .
The yajna which were not sacramental (i.e. not a samskara) were characterised by offering of oblations to various deities and personalities. The oblations (haviH) meant for gods were poured as ahuti into fire, known as homa , whereas the offerings made to the ancestors and the demigods (Nirriti and the Rakshasas) were known as bali and were placed on the strewn grass, or put in water. These practises continue even today. It is believed that in the early days, even the offerings to gods were not made in the fire, but were placed on the ground, or strewn grass, but later on nearly all the offerings were made into fire (Agni got a severe stomach problem due to this, as narrated in Mahabharata).
Here we discuss only the fire sacrifices addressed to the gods.
The Vedic yajna are prayer to the divine in anticipation of something in which the offering (including the sacrificial goat) effects the communication between the mundane and the sacred; and the priest acts both as the agent of the sacrificer and the mouthpiece of the gods.
These fire sacrifices had: a) one single fire used in domestic rites, or b) three fires for bigger sacrifices. In case of the three fires, the most important fire used to be the Gārhapatya (of the master of the house), which descended from the domestic hearth of the sacrificer, and was kept perpetually burning. All oblations were cooked in this fire. To its east used to be Āhāvaniya fire, in which offerings were made. To the south of the Gārhapatya, the dakshina agni used to be set, in which the fire used to be brought at the end of a sacrifice.
The Vedic rites can be classified into two groups: Grihya (domestic) and Shrauta (public), which were characterised respectively by the absence and the presence of priests. Grihya sacrifices included the individual samskaras (purificatory sacraments), a daily sacrifice called mahayajna (great sacrifice), and seven pākajanya (cooked sacrifices).
The Shrauta sacrifices consisted of haviryajna, and Somayajna. The haviryajna were performed with grains, ghee, milk etc., whereas the Somayajna were performed with soma juice. These sacrifices were again categorised as nitya (daily), naimittika (occasional), kāmya (with a specific desire), and prāyaschitta (penance).
Some of the the famous Vedic rites are:
Agnihotra: This was the twice daily pouring (at sunrise and sunset) of oblation (mostly milk) in the sacrificial fire by the family. The ritual was performed by a priest for his own or the benefit of a sponsor (yajamāna). This sacrifice was considered purificatory in nature, and is still practised by some.
Darshapaurnamasa: This was performed on the new moon and the full moon days.
Agrāyana: This involved offering of newly produced grains in different seasons.
Chāturmāsya: These were the four monthly rites which used to be started in the beginning of any of the three seasons: spring, rainy, or the autumn.
Agnishtoma: It was performed annually in the spring season in the praise of Agni.
Pravargya: It was an oblation offered to Ashvins of goat's and cow's milk heated in a vessel.
Vājapeya: This was done to celebrate a great victory by the king. It lasted from 17 days to a year.
Rājasuya: It was the consecration of a famous king in which great expenses were made. In the Mahabharata period Yuddhisthira performed this yajna.
Aswamedha: This was a complex sacrifice marked to prove the sovereignty of a king. After the sacrifice, the king was known as Chakravarty. Raja Ramachandra had performed this yajna.
Sarvamedha: It was a ten day sacrifice, in which a person sacrificed everything he had. It was performed for the sake of gaining and winning every kind of food, and attaining supremacy.
Along with the growth and consolidation of the yajnas, prayer to the divine also grew in importance. In the Vedas prayers are linked with the sacrifices in the form of a formula (yajus), pronounced in a low voice. There were also declamations of verses, called shastras, in which 'Aum' was inserted at regular interval.
References are also made in the Vedas to an 'internal' mental sacrifice which can be used in cases of urgency. The part played by thought, side by side with word and action is emphasised many times in various hymns. Later on this concept was taken up by various religious systems as manasā- vācā - karmanā, and a devotee was advised to offer all his acts of thinking, speaking, and doing to the Lord.
Although prayer played an integral role in any sacrifice, with time it grew independent of the yajna. The independence and the autonomy of prayer ensured its own dynamics, and it soon became powerful enough to overthrow the role of sacrifices in a spiritual life altogether. When the scholars try to present Upanisahdic thoughts as a revolt of the Kshatriyas against the Brahmins, they overlook the fact that the Upanishads are the natural outcome of the power of prayer to the Self. Any open religious system is sure to reach the state where prayer becomes the essential part of its outlook. Prayers are a kind of paradigm shift in spirituality -- a fact that was recognised and practised by the Vedic sages more than five thousand years ago.
Sections of the Vedas
The discussion till now has been on the Samhitā portion of the Vedas. As mentioned earlier, the Vedas have three more sections: Brāhmana, Āranyaka, and Upanishads. Of these, the Upanishads continue to influence the lives and philosophy of the Hindus, but the other two reached a dead end long ago, after giving birth to more specialised branches of religion connected with the issues discussed in them.
Commenting on Taittiriya Samhita 1.2.1, Bhatta Bhaskara defines ‘Brahmanas’ as texts which expound the Vedic mantras and Yajnas. In chapter 2 of his Kavyamimansa, Rajasekhar defines the Brahmanas as texts which are characterised by statements of eulogy, censure, exposition and (ritual) application (of mantras). The word is used distinctively to denote certain texts for the first time in Taittiriya Samhita 220.127.116.11
Many scholars, modern and ancient, have tried to define the Brahmanas by stating their characteristics. The reality however is that there is no sharp difference in the character of the Mantra and the Brahmana portions of the Vedas. The only thing that we may state safely is this – Mantras are those portions of the Vedas that are designated as such traditionally. And the rest is Brahmana.
Vedic sages felt that there was nothing that could not be achieved by sacrifices – the sun could be stopped from rising, and Indra, the chief of gods, could be deposed from his throne. The Samhitā contain the mantras that are required in various sacrifices, but the methodology and the science of the rituals and sacrifices required a separate kind of work.
With the growth of Samhitā literature, the corresponding science of performing the yajna also increased in bulk. With time, these were collected in a special class of literature which was known as Brāhmana. The formulas and rules for conducting extremely complex rituals are explained to the minutest detail in these works, and, every ritual is performed with a specific purpose, for which a specific result is described. Thus, for each Samhitā, there were a number of Brāhmana, which are treated as the Veda itself. Unlike the Samhitā, the Brāhmana are exclusive prose works, although some are accented.
In addition to these, the Brāhmanas also contain myths, legends, and narratives to explain or rationalise the then religious practices. The duties of men professing different occupations, the eternity of the Veda, popular customs, cosmogony, historical details, praise of ancient heroes are some other subjects dealt with in the Brahmanas. The later philosophical speculations concerning the Self were also a part of the Brāhmana, but later it broke free to become a separate section.
Thus, the Brāhmana literature can be classified under three sections:
1. vidhi, which are the practical sacrificial directions
2. arthavāda, (eulogy) which are the explanations of meanings and purpose of the sacrifices
3. upanishads, the later philosophical developments which focus on "I am That."
The staunch traditionalists, however, accept only vidhi and arthavada as the Vedas.
As in the case of Samhitā, a major portion of the Brāhmana literature has been lost, but what has reached our hands, forms an extensive literature.
The Brāhmana are indispensable if one wants to understand the later religious and philosophical literature of Hinduism. These works are also important to understand the history, science, and growth of priesthood and sacrifices. Most of the beliefs practised in modern Hinduism has been adapted from these works.
The famous Brāhmanas:
* Aitareya Brāhmana: It deals with Soma sacrifices, Agnihotra, and Rajasuya yajna.
* Kausîtaki/Sānkhāyana Brāhmana: It deals with Soma sacrifices and the food sacrifices.
* Tāndya Maha Brāhmana/ Panchavimsa: It contains some very old legends and the details of a sacrificial ceremony (Vrātyastomas) by which Vrātyas (total outcastes) were received in the Brahiminical fold.
* Sadvimsa Brāhmana: It deals with miracles and omens
* Jaiminîya Brāhmana: It has legends and the history of religion
* Chāndogya Brāhmana: The first two 'lessons' deal with ceremonies relating to birth and marriage; whereas the last eight 'lessons' constitute the famous Chāndogya Upanishad.
* Sāmvidhāna, Devatādhyana, Vamsha, Samhitopanisat Brahmans: These four Brāhmanas are very short, and are not really treated as Brāhmana.
* Sātyāyana Brāhmana: It is only found in quotations of Sayanacharya.
* Taittiriya Brāhmana: This Brāhmana is in addition to the commentary already interspersed in the Samhitā. It also contains Kāthaka portion of Brāhmana, which otherwise is considered lost. The text details various sacrifices and also narrates some legends.
* Shatapatha Brāhmana: It is in a hundred chapters, and is the most extensive and the most important of all the available Brāhmanas. It has tow recension -- Kānva, and the Mādhyandina. The work deals with sacrificial matters, sacred thread ceremony, svādhyāya (self study of scriptures), and some special sacrifices like Asvamedha.
* Gopatha Brāhmana: This is the only available Brāhmana of the Atharvaveda. In this work we have Upanishad texts like the Pranava Upanishad.
Evolution of the religious ideal in the Brāhmana:
Japa: The rationale of the sacrifices were discussed threadbare in the Brāhmana, but that did not satisfy every mind. Questions were raised against sacrifices and their methodology. Even gods themselves started becoming redundant. And with all this kind of mental activity poured into the analysis of the rites and their explanation, abstractions were increasing rapidly in the Vedic religion.
As the sacrifices were glorified and given power even over the Vedic gods, the power of the word increased. Japa (the practice of chanting a mantra silently) of 'Aum' practised ascetically with the sacrifices was believed to produce all one's desires. At the same time knowledge was beginning to be valued. In one exchange mind says that speech merely imitates it, but speech emphasises the importance of expression and communication; however, Prajapati decides that mind is more important than the word.
In the long run, the sacrifices went away, the gods went away, prayers and chant went away. What remained was only japam of the sacred 'Aum'. Later, this was also given up to pave way for meditation.
Tapasyā: Prajapati was the father of both the gods and the demons. The ethical principle of truth became stronger as the gods were described as truthful and the demons as not so truthful. However, realising the ways of the world, many complained that the demons grew strong and rich (as people complain even today of those who become successful by taking the wrong path). Instead of telling that the demons would perish due to their own karma, emphasis was laid on the power of goodness. The gods were advised to perform sacrifice, or perish. The gods performed sacrifices that made them triumph over the demons, and also helped them attain Truth.
To emphasise the power of tapas and sacrifice, it was said that Prajapati practised tapas to create the world by the heat of his own tapasya. Prajapati not only created, but also entered into things as form and name, giving them order. In the later literature, Prajapati was replaced by Brahma, who was identified with Truth and became the Creator God in the trinity that included Vishnu and Shiva.
Self Analysis: A judgement after death using a scale to weigh good against evil is described in the Satapatha Brāhmana. The text recommends that the one who knows this will balance one's actions in this world so that in the next the good deeds will rise, not the evil ones. This concept, however, underwent a great change in later times, and spiritual aspirants were advised to discriminate between the Real and the unreal to attain spiritual wisdom.
Rebirth: Belief in repeated lives through reincarnation is indicated in several passages in the Brāhmanas. A beef-eater is punished by being born as a strange and sinful creature. However, as knowledge rivalled the value of ritual, this new problem of how to escape from an endless cycle of rebirth presented itself automatically, which led to the more abstract philosophy of the Upanishads.
A few Selections from the Brāhmana
** Bhrigu, the son of Varuna was devoted to learning. Unfortunately his learning made him egotistic and he thought that he was superior to all, including the gods and his own father. So Varuna decided to make him grow in humility, and had his life breath stopped. This made Bhrigu enter the worlds of death. In the first he saw someone cut another man to pieces and eat him; in the second, one man was eating another who was screaming, and in the third a man was silently screaming. In another world there were two women guarding a treasure, and at one place a stream of blood was guarded by a naked black man with a club, while a stream of butter provided all the desires of golden men in golden bowls. In the sixth world five rivers of blue and white lotuses were flowing. There also was the river of honey, wonderful music, celestial nymphs dancing and singing, and a fragrance enveloping the whole region.
When Bhrigu returned, his father explained to him that the first man represented people who in ignorance destroyed trees, which in turn ate them; the second were those who cooked animals that cried out and in the other world were eaten by them in return; the third were those who ignorantly cooked rice and barley, which screamed silently and also ate them in return; the two women were Faith and non-Faith; the river of blood represented those who squeezed the blood out of a Brahmin, and the naked black man guarding the river was Anger; but the true sacrificers were the golden men, who got the river of butter and the paradise of the five rivers. -- Satpatha Brahmana XI.6.1
** “Prajapati alone existed before this Universe came into being. The word certainly was his only possession. Therefore, the word was the second. He desired: ‘Let me emit this very word, it will pervade this whole (space). He emitted the word and it pervaded the whole (space). It rose upwards and spread, as a continuous (well joined) stream of water.” -- Tāndya Brāhmana 20.14.2
** “Some ask- ‘If a man establishes the sacrificial fire and then dies while touring abroad, then how does one do his Agnihotra? To this, we reply that it is to be performed by offering the oblation of the milk of a cow which has been suckled by a calf that is not its own. This is because the milk of such a cow is akin in nature to the Agnihotra of such a dead man. Alternately, perform the Agnihotra with the milk of any cow. Others state the relatives of the dead man should keep the alters of that man fired up without offering sacrificial oblations till the bones of the dead man have been collected after cremation of his corpse. And if the corpse is not traceable, then twigs from 360 ‘flame of the forest’ trees should be cut and fashioned into a human figure. This should then be cremated with full ceremony and at that time, the fires from the altar established by the dead man should be extinguished by a transfer to his funeral pyre. The likeness of the corpse should be created in this manner- 150 twigs for the torso, 140 for the twigs for the two thighs. 50 for the legs and the rest should be placed above its head. Thus ends the procedure for the atonement performed for a man who establishes a sacrificial fire in the altar but dies while touring abroad.”
-- Aitareya Brāhmana XXXII.1-2
As appendices to nearly all the Brāhmanas are the texts known as Āranyakas (lit. forest texts). The main content of these texts are the mysticism and symbolism of sacrifice and priestly philosophy. In turn these Āranyakas end in the Upanishads. Although the very orthodox Vedic schools did not give much importance to the Āranyakas and the Upanishads, these are extremely important for the Vedanta philosophy. The Vedantins do not see Upanishads as the end of the Vedas, but as the final aim of the Vedas.
The Aranyakas were called the forest texts because the ascetics who taught them used to retreat into the forest, and the disciples used to follow them there. This resulted in a loss of emphasis on the sacrificial rites that were performed in the villages and the towns. It is believed that these texts were for the Vānaprasthis (those who had completed their worldly duties and renounced them), who were supposed to meditate on the mystical significance of the sacrifices only. Thus the Aranyakas were the transitional link between the Brāhmanas and the Upanishads; they discussed rites, had magical content, lists of formulas and the hymns from the Vedas, but also had the early speculations and intellectual discussions that finally flowered in the Upanishads.
The Taittiriya Aranyaka tells how when some great sages were approached by some ordinary sages for instruction, they refused. But when the sages came back with faith and tapas, they were instructed.
The sense of social morality also started growing: truth was considered to be the highest value, debtors were in fear of punishment in hell, and immorality was condemned.
The emphasis now was on spiritual knowledge. The concept of prana as the life energy of the breath was exalted and was declared to be present in trees, animals, and people in ascending order. Human immortality was identified with the atman, and not with the body. Hell was still feared, but it was believed that by practising tapasya,one could hope to be born in a better world after death or be liberated from rebirth. Non-attachment (Vairagya) was also declared to be the great purifier of the body and the liberator from the cycle of life and death.
Brahman, the Supreme Reality, and Atman, the individual's essence, were now more important than gods and sacrifices. The guardians of the spiritual treasures of the community were called Brahmavadins (those who discussed Brahman).
The Various Āranyakas
Rig Veda: Aitaraya, Kaushitaki or Shānkhyāyana
Krishna Yajurveda: Taitttiriya, Maitrāyani,
Shukla Yajurveda: Brihadaranyaka (two recensions)
Samaveda: Chhandogya, Jaiminiya
A few Selections from the Aranyaka
“They said: ‘Sir, you are the teacher, you are the teacher. What has been said has been duly fixed in mind by us. Now answer a further question. Fire, air, Aditya (sun), time, prana, food, Brahma, Rudra, Vishnu- some meditate upon one, some meditate upon another. Tell us- which one is the best for us?’ Then he replied to them: “All these are merely the manifest forms of Brahman, the Immmortal, the Formless. To whichever form each man is devoted here, in the realm of that deity does that man rejoice. For it has been said- ‘This whole is Brahman (Brahma khalvidam vāv sarvam). These, which are its manifest forms that one meditates on, worships and finally discards. For, by meditation upon these forms, one moves to higher and higher realms, and when all things perish, one attains unity with the Purusha!” -- Maitrayani Aranyaka
'He by Whom all this Universe is pervaded-- the earth and the mid region, the heaven and the quarters and the sub-quarters, that Purusha is fivefold and is constituted of 5 elements. He who has attained the Supreme Knowledge through Sannyāsa (renunciation) is indeed this Purusha. He is all that is in the present, was in the past and will be in the future. Though apparently human, his true nature is that which is settled by the Vedas and what is attained by his new birth is in right knowledge. He is firmly established in the richness of knowledge imparted by his teacher, as also in his faith and in Truth. He has become the self resplendent. Being such a one, He remains beyond the darkness of ignorance. O Aruni! Having become one possessed of knowledge by realising Him, the Supreme, through sannyasa, and with your mind fixed in your heart, do not again fall a prey to death, because sannyasa is the supreme means of spiritual realisation, therefore wise men declare that to be above all the means of liberation.' -- Taittiriya Aranyaka, X.79
'Thereafter, when the body is made fit for a state of desirelessness, he should be bent over the offering to Brahman. In this way, he will drive repeated deaths away. “The Soul is to be envisioned, to be heard, to be thought of and to be meditated upon.” “Him (the Soul) they aspire to know by reciting the Vedas, by practicing the rigors of studentship (including celibacy), by asceticism, by faith, by ritual sacrifices and by fasting” says Sage Mandukeya. “Therefore, he who knows this should, becoming tranquil, restrained (in senses), still in meditation, enduring of the opposites and immersed in faith, perceive the Soul in his own soul,” thus says Sage Madavya. That Purusha, who lives in the midst of life forces, and is a repository of consciousness, is incomprehensible and ought to be distinguished (form the animate and inanimate creation) as ‘Not this, Not this’.” “This Soul alone is the Kshatriya, it is the Brahminhood, it is all the divine beings, the Vedas, all the worlds, it is all beings, indeed it is all! This Soul is that is designated by ‘Tat tvam asi’ (That Thou are). This Soul is to be comprehended in ‘I am Brahman’. This Brahman (the Supreme Soul), without any predecessor, without any superior, without another equivalent, immanent in all, without an exterior (i.e. all pervading), is this Soul-- the Brahman (the Supreme Being), the entity that experiences everything in the Universe-- such is the doctrine”- says Sage Yajnavalkya. ' --- Shānkhyāyana Aranyaka
There are as many Upanishads to each Veda as there are Sakhas, branches or recension, i.e., 21, 102 (according to some, 109), 1000 and 50 respectively to the four Vedas (The Rig-Veda, The Yajur-Veda, The Sama-Veda and the Atharva-Veda). However, just like the lost recension, the corresponding Upanishads are also lost.
According to various sources, there are different number of important Upanishads, but Acharya Shankara has commented upon eleven: Isa, Kena, Katha, Mundaka, Mandukya, Prasna, Aitareya, Taittiriya, Chhandogya, Brihadaranyaka, and Svetasvatara. There are some upanishads coming from very old times other than these, but nearly all of the other upanishads (including Allahopanishad) is a later addition. These later works claim to belong to the lost portions of the Vedas, which can neither be proved nor disproved.
The fundamental principle governing the Upanishads is the great spiritual realisation that "Atman is Brahman" -- the individual is one with the Universal.
Because of their importance and vastness, the Upanishads will be discussed in a separate section.
From the aspect of the spiritual tradition, the Vedangas do not have much importance, because they act as auxiliaries to the Vedas. These subjects of study were quite important for the performance of Vedic rites and sacrifices, but they had no direct role in the spiritual life of a person. In later times, the evolved branches of these Vedangas were taken up by the greats of their fields and made into a complete shastra, which when followed devotedly, could take one to the realisation of the Supreme Rality.
There are six Angas or explanatory limbs, to the Vedas: Sikshā (Phonetics), Vyakarana (Grammar), Chhanda (Prosody metre), Nirukta (etymology), Jyotisha (Astronomy and astrology), Kalpa (Srauta, Grihya, Dharma and Sulba).
Sikshā: In the Taittiriya Upanishad there is the famous mantra: " Aum. We will expound siksha, or the science of pronunciation. It deals with sound, pitch, quantity, force, modulation and combination. Thus is explained the lesson on pronunciation."
As mentioned in the above Upanishad, Sikshā was the science of pronunciation. The oldest phonetics textbooks are the Prātishakyas that describe pronunciation and intonation as well as the rules of sandhi of the vedic Sanskrit. These books were specific to the individual Shakhas of the Vedas. With time, more popular versions of these Prātishakhya came into existence which were known as siksha.
The importance of the study of this branch of study has been beautifully stressed in a popular story (Taittiriya Samhitā, 2.4.12): Tvasta, the divine carpenter wanted to take a revenge on Indra, and hence conducted a yajna to beget a son who would destroy Indra. When he chanted the mantra, 'Indrasatur varddhasva...' , he went wrong in intonation: he was supposed to pronounce "indra" without raising or lowering the syllables in it, whereas "tru" and "rddha" should have been raised (udatta). Had Tvasta pronounced correctly, it would have meant 'May Tvasta's son grow to be the slayer of Indra'. Unfortunately because of the wrong intonation, the mantra now meant, 'May Indra grow to be killer of this son (of mine).' Consequently, Tvasta's son was killed by Indra, although there was no change in the wordings of the mantra, only the change in the stress of the letters caused this havoc.
Vyākarana: The Vedic grammar is lost forever but the remnant of it can be found in the works of Panini's grammar.
Chhandas: This the science of prosody. There are very few books left on this subject, that too of very late origin. Sutras of Pingala on metrics is one of the more famous one, but this was also recorded much after the Vedic period.
Chhandas expound the 'metres of the gods', the 'metres of Asuras' etc., and treat the seven famous metres of the Vedas, along with the other complex metres. Reflections on the names and forms of metres, and the mysticism of the syllable and of the verse were developed to an extraordinary extent in the hymns of the Samhitā, and also the Brāhmanas.
Nirukta: This Vedanga is the philosophy of etymology, but deals exclusively with the words of Rig veda. Yaska's Nirukta is the only famous work that has come down to us, which in itself is the commentary of an earlier work, Nighantu. It is in the form of explanations of words, and is the basis for later lexicons and dictionaries.
Jyotisha: The importance of the Vedic sacrifices necessitated the drawing up of the calendar for rituals and fix the proper times for the sacrifices. This meant that the sages had to study the movements of the planets and observe the celestial phenomena in detail. It was thus that the science of astronomy and astrology came up in India.
Kalpa: It is the description of the methodology of ritual. To help the priests perform the various details connected with a sacrifice, a kind of manual was worked out. With time every Veda had its own handbook (written in short form, known as sutra) of rituals, which came to be known as Kalpa. Thus the Shrauta Sutras (dealing with public sacrifices), Grihya Sutras which concern domestic life and the Dharma Sutras which deal with ethics, customs and laws -- all belong to Kalpa. The Sulba, which treat of the measurements necessary for laying out the sacrificial area, also belong to Kalpa.
Among the Kalpa Sutras, the works of Asvalayana, Sankhayana, Gobhila, Katyayana, Apastamba, Hiranyakesi, Bodhayana, Bharadvaja are more famous.
In later times, the Kalpa evolved into Smriti literature of law books, of which Manusmriti became the most famous.
The Hindus consider the Vedas to be synonymous with knowledge. However, even a brief survey of the Vedas, as presented in this short monograph, is enough to make one realise that the Vedas (which include the rituals, the code of conduct, mythologies, and the philosophy of Vedanta) are synonymous with religion. Whatever principle or practice is there in the religious world can be found in the Vedas, although not every religion can be traced to it. Swami Vivekananda says, '.. the Vedanta, applied to the various ethnic customs and creeds of India, is Hinduism. The first stage, i.e. Dvaita, applied to the ideas of the ethnic groups of Europe, is Christianity; as applied to the Semitic groups, Mohammedanism. The Advaita, as applied in its Yoga-perception form, is Buddhism etc. Now by religion is meant the Vedanta; the applications must vary according to the different needs, surroundings, and other circumstances of different nations.'
The spiritual experiences of Sri Ramakrishna have once again proved that the Vedas are infallible. The experiences portrayed in many of the hymns of the Vedas were thought to be poetic in nature by the scholars, but Sri Ramakrishna had those experiences even before he knew of the existence of such Vedic passages.
It is wrong to search for any kind of religious evolution in the Vedas; the ideas are as they are. The Vedic sages meditated upon the various aspects of the external and the internal nature to come up with the ultimate spiritual solution to the enigmas that presented themselves to these sages. Naturally it is impossible to say which of these enigmas were more advanced in nature when they came to the sages. Further, if it be accepted that the Vedas are the revelations received in the transcendental state of a pure mind, then it would be wrong to conclude that there can be any evolution in it. It would be more like concluding that the words of Sri Ramakrishna are later than the words of a novice of the twenty-first century, simply because Sri Ramakrishna's words are spiritually more perfect. So, one must accept the Vedas as they are.
Every student of religion and every devout Hindu has to go back to the Vedas if he wants to make his life blessed.
References for An Overview of the Vedas I-IV:
-- Vedic India by Louis Renou. Pub: Susil Gupta (India) Ltd, Kolkata -12
-- Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda
-- Translations of the Vedas by Ralph Griffith
-- The Call of the Vedas by A.C. Bose, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan
-- A Vedic Reader by Arthur Anthony Macdonell
-- Vedas by Max Muller
-- Vedic Selections by Calcutta University
-- The Secret of the Veda by Sri Aurobindo