The Yajur Veda is one of the oldest books in the Vedas and arguably one of the oldest texts recorded in the world. The Yajur Veda is a Samhita, which is one of four sections of the Hindu holy scriptures which has the highest influence upon the lives of the Hindus (Rai 10). A Samhita is a collection of mantras, or hymns, most of which sing the praises of one or another personal god (Prabhavananda 31). Its origins are speculated to go as far back as 2000 B.C. when the Vedas were orally kept (Santucci xi). It was not until a millennium later around 1000 B.C. when the Yajur Veda was compiled (Staal 749). In the Rgveda itself the Yajurveda and the Samaveda are mentioned in a number of passages (Saraswati 192), leading to the assumption that these three Samhitas were around at the same time.
The ‘Yajur Veda’ is translated as “the knowledge of sacrificial formulae (yajus)” (Santucci 11). The Vedas – Rg veda, Yajur veda, Sama veda and Atharva veda — are the first four of the pramanas (authoritative texts) of the religion and also the most important (Saraswati 136). The Yajur Veda along with the other Vedas (Rg, Sama, Atharva) is considered to be apauresya (divine in origin) (Prabhavananda 25). In particular the Yajur Veda is referenced to and used by the Adhvarya priest (Santucci 11).
The Vedas are considered to be “revealed”, divinely inspired (Jamison 10). The Vedas are regarded as sruti: uncreated, eternal and revealed to sages (Sharma 6). The Vedas were received by visionaries (rsi) who saw with a special psychic perception the sacred mantras upon which they meditated and finally communicated in the form of the Vedas (Cush, Robinson, York 694). The Vedas are ‘revealed’ at the beginning of each cosmic age to seers who ‘see’ the Vedas and teach it orally to their disciples (Sutherland, Houlden, et al. 575).
The Yajur Vedas’ origins are legendary. Dvaipayana (known as Veda Vyasa) the primordial sage in the second yuga compiled the Vedas after they were revealed to him (Sharma 6, Rai 1). Dvaipayana taught a Samhita to each of his many pupils over time (Rai 1). The knowledge of the Yajur Veda was taught to one of his students named Vaisampayana (Rai 1). A rsi by the name of Yajnavalkya was a disciple of the great rsi Vaisampayana (Prabhavananda 28). After Vaisampayana had missed a very important council he was said to have sinned (Prabhavananda 28). In order to rid himself of his sin he ordered his disciples to do austerities (Prabhavananda 28). Yajnavalkya questioned his great master by saying “Master, how can you expiate your sin by the austerities of these thy worthless disciples?” (Prabhavananda 28). At this Vaisampayana grew angry, and said: “How dare you speak thus? I want no such hot-headed, egotistical disciple as you! Give back what you have learned from me, and be off!” (Prabhavananda 29). So Yajnavalkya recited all he had learnt and departed from Vaisampayana (Prabhavananda 29). That which he recited back to Vaisampayana is known as the Black Yajur Veda (Prabhavananda 29). Now Yajnavalkya, having cast away his knowledge of the Vedas, felt empty and realized what kind of man he had become (Prabhavananda 29). He asked himself “But where might I find a teacher” (Prabhavananda 29). Then it occurred to him that the sun-god never separated himself from the Vedas (Prabhavananda 29). Yajnavalkya accepted the sun-god as his master, and prayed to him for knowledge (Prabhavananda 29). The sun-god, pleased with the fervour of his new votary, answered his prayers (Prabhavananda 29). The sun-god taught Yajnavalkya and the teachings henceforth became known as the White Yajur Veda (Prabhavananda 29). Then in turn Yajnavalkya taught this White Yajur Veda to his disciples (Prabhavananda 29).
Deriving from the story above, the Yajur Veda itself has two divisions; the White (Sukla) Yajur Veda and the Black (Krsna) Yajur Veda (Santucci 11). The White Yajur Veda contains only the sacrificial formulae without any explanation to their uses in the rituals (Santucci 11). While the Black Yajur Veda on the other hand contains an explanation and discussion of the sacrificial rites to which the formulae belong (Santucci 11). These explanations are called brahmanas, which are written in prose style (Jamison 13). The White Yajur Veda also has a brahmana, but it is separate from the Yajur Veda text itself (Jamison 13). Because of the these differences and overall presentation of each recension, the White Yajur Veda is commonly known as clear and precise in presentation (Jamison 13). These attributes give rise to the White Yajur Veda having a ‘clear’ Samhita and a ‘clear’ brahmana (Kapoor 1851). The Black Yajur Veda is known to be ‘mixed up’ because the brahmana is mixed in with the Samhita writings (Jamison 13). Also with the chronology of the legend of the Yajur Veda, the White Yajur Veda is more recent and an improvement on the Black Yajur Veda (Kapoor 1852). Despite this major difference in the structure, the sacrifices that both the White and Black Yajur Vedas outline are almost identical (Rai 35).
The divisions as stated before are the White Yajur Veda and the Black Yajur Veda. The White Yajur Veda has one Samhita with two recensions and the Black Yajur Veda has four different Samhitas (Santucci 11). The White Yajur Veda is also known as the Vajasaneyi-Samhita (Suntucci 12). The Vajasenyi-Samhita exists in two very similar recensions, the Madhyamdina and the Kanva (Jamison 13). These two recensions are almost identical; the chief difference is in the variance of the sacrificial formulae themselves (Santucci 12). The Black Yajur Veda Samhitas are very closely interrelated to each other (Santucci 11). All four discuss the same subject matter, sometimes in identical or nearly identical language (Santucci 11). Their individual titles are Kathaka-Samhita, Kapisthala-Samhita, Maitrayani-Samhita, and the Taittriya-Samhita (Santucci 12). They are considered Samhitas and not recensions because of the differences in their brahmana portions, which take independent and in some cases opposing positions (Jamison 13). The Kathaka-Samhita and the Maitrayani-Samhita are often in agreement and are in opposition to the Taittriya-Samhita (Jamison 14). The brahmana proses of these texts are the oldest expository prose written in Sanskrit (the ancient text in which the Vedas were written), even older than the texts specifically called Brahmanas (Jamison 13).
The Black and White Yajur Vedas have different ways of organizing their contents (Rai 30). The White Yajur Veda has forty lectures (adhyaya) which are unequally subdivided into shorter sections (kandika), each of which has a prayer or mantra (Rai 30). Each of the forty lectures contains between thirteen and one hundred and seventeen sections (Rai 30). The Black Yajur Veda is divided into seven books (astaka) each containing anywhere from five to eight lectures (adhyaya) (Rai 35). Likewise each lecture is subdivided into sections with a total of six hundred and fifty sections (Rai 35). The books of the Black Yajur Veda are more commonly known as Kandas (Rai 35).
The most important feature of the Yajur Veda is that it supplies the formulae for the entire sacrificial ceremony (Santucci 12). The prose formulae and prayers are called yajus (plural yajums); the verses are called rc (plural rces) (Winternitz 152). There are two ways of performing the yajus; one is by muttering the prayer which is called yajus and the second is by speaking aloud the prayer which is called nigada (Alper 6). Within the formulae there are mantras associated with each ritual (Sharma 185). A mantra is understood by the tradition as a polyvalent instrument of power (Alper 6). As for the sacrifice itself, the name that has been used for millennia is yajna (Rodrigues 28). The sacrifice, once performed, goes to the god which it is being performed for as a gift (Oldenberg 184). Through the rituals which humans perform, the gods can be manipulated to a certain extent (Sutherland, Houlden, et al. 576). The sacrificing part of a yajna ceremony falls under the duty of the Adhvaryu priest (Jamison 22). The Adhvaryu by consulting the Black Yajur Veda receives a step-by-step procedure which goes down to the minutest of procedures (Oldenberg 8). Not only does the Adhvarya perform the yajus but he also prepares the sacrificial grounds, the implements, and the oblations (Jamison 22). The priest performing the yajna hopes that it will have an effect on the mind of the god through awakening of his good will in favor of humans (Oldenberg 184). An example of this in Vedic lore is when the Vedic god Indra asks a man named Susravas to do a yajna and after he does as he is commanded, the god Indra loves Susravas for it (Oldenberg 184). The importance of precision cannot be overstated when performing a ritual (Winternitcz 150). If an act is not performed exactly as prescribed, a prayer, mantra or a melody sung wrong brings ruin to the performer (Winternitz 150). The center of the religious practice of the entire Aryan (early Hindu) people was the sacrificial rituals (Sutherland, Houlden, et al. 576).
The Yajur Veda holds some of the grandest and most important mantras and rituals in the Hindu religion (Winternitz 163). For instance, the Taittiriya-Samhita contains the Gayatri mantra four times (Sharma 21). It also contains the Sarvamadha or “all-sacrifice”, which is the highest sacrifice that exists (Winternitz 163). Along with one of the grandest of all the yajna which is the asvamedha or horse-sacrifice (Rodrigues 30). An example of a section in the Taittiriya-Samhita is:
Yo’sman dvesti yam ca vayam dvisma
Idam asya griva api krntami”
(Taittriya-Samhita 220.127.116.11 c)
The translation of this mantra with accompanying brahmana is:
“The enemy has to be excluded from the alter, for making the alter is a cruel act. “Let him think of anyone he hates; he does truly inflict trouble upon him!”
The version of the Yajur Veda you will read may depend on where you are in the world (Sharma 21). For instance if you go to India’s second largest temple, Ranganathaswamy at Srirangan, their rituals are performed under the Kanva shakha (Sharma 21). Even though different recessions of the Yajur Veda are used in different areas, various mantras within the Yajur Veda should be known by all Brahmins (Saraswati 263). The Gayatri mantra (Taittiriya Samhita 18.104.22.168-8), once learnt from a Guru, should be recited by the Brahmin every day (Saraswati 263). Some of the mantras from the Yajur Veda that every Brahmin should be able to chant are the Purusha Sukta (Vajasenayi Samhita 31.1-6) and the Sri Rudram (Taittiriya Samhita 4.5, 4.7) (Saraswati 264).
The Yajur Veda is seen as the most important of the four Vedas (Kapoor 1965). Without the Yajur Veda one cannot understand the Brahmanas and without these, the Upanisads (Winternitz 174). Sayana, the great commentator of the Vedas, said “the poetry of the Rg Veda, and even the collection of the Sama Veda, are of far less importance than the Yajur Veda” (Kapoor 1852). In his introduction to the Taittiriya-Samhita he says “The Rg Veda and Sama Veda are like fresco-painting, whereas the Yajur Veda is the wall on which they stand” (Kapoor 1852). The Yajur Veda is a complex and ancient text. It is a text that has many intricacies and many versions to study from. It has been used since the time of the Aryans up until this day. It is prominent now just as it was three thousand years ago. The essence of pleasing the gods and balancing the cosmos is brought out in the Yajur Veda through its rituals. The Yajur Veda holds a special place in not only the Vedic canon but also to anyone who believes in the Vedas.
References and Further Recommended Reading
Alper, Harvey P. (1989) Mantra. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Cush, Denis, Catherine Robinson, and Michael York (2008) Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Abingdon: Routledge Publishers.
Kapoor, Subodhi (2000) The Hindus Encyclopedia of Hinduism. New Delhi: Cosmo Publishers.
Jamison, Stephanie W. (1991) The Ranenous Hyenas and the Wounded Sun, Myth and Ritual in Ancient India. New York: Cornell University Press.
Oldenberg, Hermann (1988) The Religion of the Veda. New Delhi: Shri Jainendra Press.
Prabhavananda, Swami (1979) The Spiritual Heritage of India. Hollywood, California: Vedanta Press.
Rai, Raja Rammohan (1977) The Vedas-Scripture of the Hindus. Delhi: Nag Publications.
Rodrigues, Hilary (2006) Introducing Hinduism. New York: Routledge Publishers.
Santucci, James A. (1976) An outline to Vedic literature. Missoula: Scholars Press.
Saraswati, Chandrasekharendra (1995) Hindu Dharma. Delhi: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan Publishers.
Sharma, P.R.P. (2007) Encyclopedia of Vedas. New Delhi: Anmol Publications.
Staal, Frits (2001) How a Psychoactive Substance Becomes a Ritual: The Case of Soma, Social Research, Vol. 68, No. 3, Altered States of Consciousness.
Sutherland, Stewart, Leslie Houlden, Peter Clarke and Friendhelm (1988) The World’s Religions. Boston, Massachusetts: G.K.Hall and Co. Publishers.
Winternitz, Maurice (1981) History of Indian Literature. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.
Article written by Brayden Wirzba (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.