Category Archives: B. Vedic Religion and the Sanskrit Language

Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

The Brhadaranyaka Upanisad is the primary book of the Upanishads, a collection of Hindu philosophical texts. It is one of the oldest Upanishads and its name translates into “the Great Forest Book” (Sastri 29). Written entirely in prose form, this text is one of the more philosophical books of the Upanishads and largely comments on the nature of reality and the basic identity of atman.

The history and dates of the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad is still a somewhat debated topic. Through analyzing the linguistics used in the text, philologist Max Muller speculated that the text was written between 1000-800 BCE (Muller 333). Other estimates have been given around the same time period but due to the antiquity of the text it is difficult to confidently date the text.

The Brhadaranyaka Upanisad largely follows the sage Yajnavalkya and his wife Maitreyi. Yajnavalka is sage who is portrayed to be an important advisor in the court of Janaka. Through the stories of the Brhadaranyaka, Yajnavalkya comments on many philosophical issues including consciousness and perception, creation and self, and the laws of karma. The main virtues that occur in the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad are self-restraint, giving, and compassion, or self-restraint, self-sacrifice, and merciful-benevolence (Sastri 16).

Some evidence suggests that the text was written in a ring composition, where themes are discussed in a cyclical fashion (Hock 279). Ring composition is commonly found in narratives that have a history of being orally passed through generation (Hock 279).

There is one story that is particularly interesting because it is told twice in the Brhadaranyaka with one version differing only slightly from the other. This story follows a conversation between Yajnavalkya and Maitreyi on the nature of knowledge. In one version Yajnavalkya uses the word “vijnyanam,” meaning “knowing apart,” and later in the same version uses the phrase “nothing but discerning knowledge,” to describe vijnyanam (Wood 7-9). In the other version of the story, Yajnavalkya uses the term “prajnyanam,” meaning “knowing before,” and “nothing but underlying knowledge,” (Wood 7-9). In both versions of the story Maitreyi is confused by Yajnavalkya’s comments and in response to her confusion Yajnavalkya begins a discussion on dual and non-dual ideas of knowledge. Duality of knowledge can be thought of as knowledge gained through perception and non-duality can be thought of in Cartesian terms; the only knowledge one can be certain of is the knowledge of self (Wood 6-8). With this, Yajnavalkya ends the conversation with Maitreyi and leaves her, along with the reader, wondering about the nature of knowledge, consciousness, and perception (Wood 6-8). The two versions of this story in the text offer evidence of ring composition structure perhaps, in this particular case, to portray a different concept to the reader (Hock 282). In the first telling of the story, Yajnavalkya responds to Maitreyi’s question of whether having wealth would make her immortal with a blunt “neti,” or “no.” This is different from the second telling where he answers her question with “neti neti,” (Hock 282). This respond is a clear allusion to the advaita refrain (Hock 282).

The advaita refrain is a passage that is found in multiple places in the Brhadaranyaka (Hock 280). The passage describes the nature of atman using negative definitive approach (Hock 280).

“This atman is “not (this), not (this)”; not comprehensible, for it is not comprehended; not destructible, for it is not destroyed; not attached, not fettered, (for) it is not (being) attached, it does not suffer” (Brhadaranyaka Upanisad 3.9.26, Hock 280)

Another story involving Yajnavalkya and Maitreyi that is of interest is one concerning the absolute nature of the self. This conversation between Yajnavalkya and Maitreyi addresses the difference between true happiness and happiness that arises from the acquisition of material possessions. In this story, Yajnavalkya tells Maitreyi that he has decided to leave the householder stage of life and move onto the next stage, a stage of renunciation. He announces that he is going to divide his possessions between Mairtreyi and his other wife Katayani. In response to this, Maitreyi asks Yajnavalkya if she will be able to gain happiness from the acquisition of the property and, further, if it is possible to gain true happiness from the satisfaction and comforts that accompany material possessions. The story portrays Yajnavalkya as being very pleased with Maitreyi for asking such a question. He tells her that one cannot attain true happiness through the comfort and satisfaction through material possessions or anything that gives any comfort, including psychological or social comfort (Sastri 348-357).

Here, the conversation shifts to properties of material possessions. Yajnavalkya explains to Maitreyi that the laws of time give material possessions a temporal aspect and that things with temporal aspects cannot bring true happiness. Things that are exempt from temporal properties are what is needed to attain true happiness, and things of this nature are known a eternal or immortal (Sastri 348-357).

Another main concept discussed in the Brhadaranyaka is the nature of creation. The text describes creation as coming from one absolute self that existed before creation on its own (Wood 35). This portion of the text has many psychological and metaphysical aspects. The text asserts that in the beginning there was nothing and this is likened to darkness and light, with darkness being characterized by a lack of sensory perception and light being characterized by perception being possible. A metaphysical question that arises from this is how did something (the universe) come to be if in the beginning there was nothing? It is illogical to believe that something came from nothing, and the text addresses this through saying nothing is fully created but only transformed into something different (Sastri 308-315). The text also says that each person’s true self is the same as complete reality and because of this it is possible to understand reality through understanding the inner self, the emphasis here is on creation from self (Wood 26).

Another large part of the Brhadaranyaka is spent on the laws of karma. The text describes how the laws of karma predict one’s rebirth. The text describes karma as

“…after death we go to the next world, bearing in mind the subtle impressions of our deeds; and after reaping there harvest of such deeds, return again to this work of action. Thus, whoever has desire continues subject to rebirth.” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.1-2)

Through this passage, the Brhadaranyaka sums up karma to say that rebirth is a product of one’s actions and desires in life, and rebirth will continue as such. Another passage describes the cessation of the rebirth cycle if one desire has been calmed (Brahamaprana 4). The latter part of this passage may be interpreted to mean that rebirth will cease if one has attained the highest form of realization, brahman. After attaining brahman, the text implies that the cycle of karma will stop.

This view is carried over into the description of death as well. Death is described as a state where one has no perception of the senses and one is detached from the physical body of life (Brahamaprana 6). The text articulates that all souls that have passed will momentarily stay in a state of light. Those who have attained realization will stay in this state, while those souls who did not attain realization will pass through karmic retribution until a future rebirth occurs (Brahamaprana 6-7).


References and Further Recommended Readings

Sastri, S.K. (1950) The Brhadaranyaka Upanisad with commentary by Sankaracarya. Advaida Ashrama: Mayavati Almora, Himalayas.


Singh, U. (2008) A history of ancient to medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th century. Delhi: Pearson Longman.


Wood, A. E. (1996) Interpreting the Upanisads. East Anglia: Full Circle Publishing.


Radhakrishan, S. (1953) The Principal Upanishads. New York: Harper.


Brahmaprana, P (2001) “Vedanta: Death and Art of Dying.” Cross Currents, Fall 2001: 337-345.


Hock, H.H. (2002) “The Yajnavalkya cycle in the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad” Journal of American Oriental Society 122(2), 279-286.


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Max Muller

Chandogya Upanishad




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Article written by: Brinn Lemke (April 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.





The Brhadaranyaka Upanisad

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The Satapatha Brahmana

The Brahmanas are part of Hindu Vedic religion, which emerged after the Samhitas. Mainly, they describe details of Vedic ritual, including sacrificial rites (yajna), philosophical, and mythological background. More specifically, the Brahmanas dealt with proper performance of rituals, especially for the priestly class (Brahmins) (Rodrigues 59). It is insinuated that yajna was performed to give the gods their powers and to provide sustenance. One such Brahmana, The Satapatha Brahmana, has become famous in modern Vedic literature with the help of the translation by Julius Eggeling in the Sacred Books of the East (Vol. XII, XXVI, XLI, XLIII, XLIV. 1963).

The Satapatha Brahmana was composed around 300 BCE. It prescribes many rituals, as it is sometimes translated as The Brahamana of a Hundred Paths. In its fourteen kandas, the Satapatha Brahmana details many simple sacrificial rites but also goes into great detail of the most famous rituals in Hinduism; new and full-moon sacrifices, asvamedha (horse sacrifice) and rajasuya (consecration of a king), and agnicaya. Although the majority of the Satapatha Brahmana (SB) details Brahminic rituals, it also elaborates on ancient creation mythology such as the Flood of Manu.

Yajna are some of the most important rituals in the practice of Hinduism. As translated by J. Gonda (1) from the SB, “by reciting definite texts in a continuous, uninterrupted way one makes the days and nights of a year revolve in a continuous, uninterrupted way” (SB. 1, 3, 5, 16) “man, in being born, is born as a debt to death; in that he sacrifices he redeems himself from death” (SB. 3, 6, 2, 16).

There are many inclusions of fire sacrifices to the Hindu Fire God, Agni, in most of the kandas. This implies an importance placed on Agni in early Vedic religion to help maintain the order of the universe. Agnicayana or Building of the Sacred Fire Altar, is described in detail in the sixth, seventh and eighth kandas. Agnicayana is possibly one of the oldest surviving human rituals, as it is still performed today within Hinduism. This twelve-day ritual is premised upon attaining vitality, offspring or immortality. Before beginning the elaborate ritual, seventeen priests work for months to ensure the proper required preparations are completed (Rodrigues 64). Particular attention is paid to the detail of the layers of the bricks to construct the fire altar (vedi) (Eggeling vol. XLIII:1-147).  Historically, over the twelve days of ritual animal and soma sacrifices are made to the god Vayu (wind) and Agni (fire), purification rites for the patron are performed, construction of the fire altar, oblations of water and ghee, and many more animal and Soma sacrifices are made (Rodrigues 66) [see summary of agnicayana in greater detail in Rodrigues 64-67, or full translation in Eggeling, vol. XLI:143-419 and vol. XLIII:1-405].

Ancient social order of the Vedic peoples is studied in reference to the asvamedha and rajasuya. The asvamedha (horse sacrifice) [no longer performed because of its elaborate nature] was regarded as an important kingship ritual. A king, aspiring to achieve emperor status and attain offspring, would set free a stallion to wander about the land for one year accompanied by the king’s army. As the horse wandered upon another king’s land, the ruler would have to choose whether to relinquish his land or keep the horse and thus, initiate war. In this way, a king would acquire enough land to become an emperor. At the end of the one-year period of wandering, the horse [as a representative of the king] would be sacrificed. During the sacrificial rite, before the horse was killed, a ritual with the king’s chief queen would take place. The queen would simulate copulation with the horse under a large blanket as a representation of her relationship with the king. Rice would be cooked to represent the king’s virility, which later was to be consumed by the king’s wives. A dog was also sacrificed during this ritual to represent the killing of the king’s enemies. This ritual was very expensive and performed only by the wealthiest kings. Furthermore, the performance of one hundred asvamedhas in a single lifetime would grant the ruler the throne of Indra, ruler of the gods (Rodrigues 64) [see further summary in Rodrigues 62-64, full translation in Eggeling, vol. XLIV:274-440, and an example in the Ramayana epic].

Another form of societal ritual outlined in the Satapatha Brahmana is the rajusaya, or Inauguration of a King (Eggeling vol. XLI:42-129). A king who sought to become emperor would embark on a journey to conquer a kingdom, much like the horse representative of the king did in the asvamedha. Upon his return, the general would invite the conquered kings to join in a sacrificial ceremony. Since this was a riskier way to obtain a kingdom, it was more rare than the asvamedha [see further example explanation of the rajusaya ritual in the Mahabharata epic].

Included in parts of the agnicayana, asvamedha and rajusaya rituals, the sacred plant, Soma, also appears in numerous other rituals throughout the Satapatha Brahmana. Soma was first described in the RgVeda in little detail and further elaborated on in many other Vedic literatures, including the SB. Unfortunately, the Vedic peoples left little evidence of what soma actually was (Staal 747). Scholars regard Soma as a hallucinogenic, even though the true nature of the plant has not been verified (Rodrigues 67). Nevertheless, more than one hundred Vedic texts refer to the use of Soma (Rodrigues 67). Soma rituals prescribed throughout the SB, are mainly associated with fire sacrifices to the god Agni and Indra, who were believe to frequently drink the Soma extract (Rodrigues 67). A Soma feast is also described scrupulously in the third and fourth kandas (Eggeling vol. XXVI:226-3910)

Another important historic ritual, the new and full moon rituals, was performed twice a month, every month. The rituals were prescribed to retain the natural order of the universe. During the full moon (purnima), Hindus would observe a daylong fasting period while worshiping the god Visnu. During the new moon (amavasya) ritual, Hindus would again fast for a day in which they often worship ancestors. Clarified butter, fruit and animal sacrifices were made, as prescribed by the Satapatha Brahmana (Eggeling vol. XII:1-262, vol. XLIV:1-131). This was thought to be a central ritual, which preceded many other sacrificial rituals outlined in the Brahmanas (Eggeling vol. XLIV:1-131).

Along with rituals, the Satapatha Brahmana details creation myths, such as the Flood of Manu (Eggeling vol. XII:216-230). The Flood of Manu has recently been compared with the Noah’s Ark story in the Bible. While Manu was bathing, a fish asked to be moved into a bowl, as he was too small for the sea and the other fish would eat him. The fish promised to tell Manu how to save the world if he carried out the fish’s requests. The fish grew and grew, always requesting a bigger vessel. He quickly grew too big for any vessel and requested to be placed into the River Ganga. The fish then proceeded to instruct Manu to build a ship to hold animals when the great flood came. Manu did as he was told by the fish and saved the animals. The fish is thought to be a manifestation of Pajrapati [creator God] (Sehgal 401-402). In the interest of brevity, many points of the Flood of Manu have been excluded for this article (for short summary see Sehgal 401-402 and full translation Eggeling vol. XII:216-230).

Some rituals outlined in the Satapatha Brahmana are still maintained today, but many have been left in the past. Some rituals go into particular detail regarding animal sacrifice, which would only be prescribed for certain animals. Modern-day Hindus however, rarely use animal and blood sacrifices, instead using clarified butter, fruit and rice to feed the gods (Rodrigues 61). Modern interpretations have been made in regards to the Vedas in order to fit with current social norms.



References and Further Recommended Readings

Eggeling, Julius (trans.) (1963) Satapatha Brahmana: Sacred Books of the East, vols. XII, XXVI, XLI, XLIII, XLIV. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1882-1900.

Gonda, J. (1905) Mantra Interpretation in the Satapatha Brahmana. Leiden: Brill.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism: The eBook. Journal Buddhist Ethics Online Books,Ltd.

Seghal, Sumil (1999) Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Sarup & Sons.

Staal, Fritz (2001) “How a Psychoactive Substance Becomes a Ritual: The Case of Soma.” Social Research, Vol. 68 No. 3: 745-778

Stutley, Margaret (1969)The Aśvamedha or Indian Horse Sacrifice.” Folklore, Vol. 80 No. 4: 253-261



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Laws of Manu








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Article written by Alyssa Wadman (April 2013) who is solely responsible for the content.

The Brahmanas

The Brahmanas are a section in the Vedas and were said to be mostly written in 1400-1200 BC (Haug 47). The Brahamanas mostly consist of the proper way to conduct ritual practices of the priestly class. Hindus believe that if they practice these rituals it will grant them pride of acting rightly because performance of rituals was equal to acting rightly (Satheye 435). Each particular Veda has a Brahamana (Haug 6), but some of the teachings in each may be a little different, but still represent the same general idea. Each Brahmana was not just one part of itself, but each Brahmana was broken into more precise parts explaining different ideas and rituals.

The first Brahmana that will be looked at is Aitareya Brahmana, which is appended to the Rg Veda. At the time these hymns were written the caste system was not absolute and was subject to change because it was possible for the lower classes to become Brahmins (Satheye 436). At the time Hindus also relied on ritual practices in order to survive and they also had to be correctly done otherwise they were not legitimate (Satheye 440). The Aitareya Brahmana shows what Hindus are supposed to do through their life and the details associated with these rituals. For instance, Brahmin priests were evaluated on how correctly they would perform rituals (Satheye 435). They were made to believe that what they do in their life, good or bad, could affect their descendents, so behavior along with ritual practice was taken very seriously (Satheye 439). The Aitareya Brahmana also discusses the meaning of mantra and the application of mantra to the Hindus (Haug 3). Hindus believe that there are connections between the origins of their existence and the sacrificial rituals they perform and the Aitareya Brahmanas help explain the meaning of this (Haug 3). The many gods’ that they recognize now were not very consistent in the Aitareya Brahmana, which means there wasn’t much knowledge about these gods except for the ones that are known about now (Satheye 439). Finally, the Aitareya Brahmana is “inspired by ideals of safety, self-preservation, and rare preservation” (Satheye 440) and goes into detail of what this is all about.

The next Brahmanas are attached to the Vedic hymn collection called the Sama Veda, which also talks about the rules of certain rituals and practices. The one section of these Brahmanas that will be discussed is the Jaiminiya Brahmana. The second Brahmana of the Sama Veda is called the Chandogya Brahmana. One of the things explained is what type of person is allowed to participate in rituals and which people are not (Bodewitz 151). The sacred plant soma, which is a hallucinogenic used in some rituals, is also only to be consumed by certain individuals during rituals (Bodewitz 151). As mentioned in the Aitareya Brahmana, the Jaiminiya Brahmana also reinforces the fact that there is a certain way that rituals should be performed (Bodewitz 151). Lastly, the Jaiminiya Brahmana has very close similarities with that of another Brahmana called the Catayana Brahmana (Oertel 15). The reason that these two Brahmanas are similar is due to the stories that are told in them.

The second Brahmana which is part of the Sama Veda is one of the more popular. The Chandogya Brahmana is described as being quite long and a very important text (Lincoln 128). Where and when it was written are hard to tell, but scholars say it most likely comes from Northern India (Lincoln 128). The Chandogya Brahmana was a lot like other Vedic texts as it referred to other texts or most of it was made up of previous texts maybe just written in different context (Lincoln 128). One of the reasons that it was written was to explain the significance and the meaning of the four asramas (Olivelle 205). The four asramas refer to the four stages in a Hindu’s life: the student stage, the householder stage, the forest dweller stage and finally the renouncer stage. Although there is some speculation from certain scholars whether or not this is actually what the Chandogya Brahmana consists of; there is a lot of disagreement (Olivelle 206). Those that believe this is true have studied that the Hindus believe the first three stages only get you merit where as if you are able to get to the renouncer stage you will able to achieve immortality (Olivelle 205). Some of the other rituals and ideas mentioned are that of sacrificial practices and even about the “understanding of the cosmos, the self and nature of being” (Lincoln 128).

The Yajur Veda contains two Brahmanas, the Shatapatha Brahmana and Taittirya Brahmana. The Shatapatha Brahmana explains how the Vedic hymns are used in certain areas of Brahmanical rituals (Muir 31). The Shatapatha Brahmana is the only one that gives any detail on the ritual of human sacrifices (Dumont 177). The concept of certain gods or deities also comes up and how they came into being and certain myths believed about these divine beings. The god Visnu is mentioned in previous Vedic hymns, but in this particular Brahmana Visnu is perceived a little different and even portrayed in new legends that were not heard of before (Muir 32). Visnu is a also portrayed as a tortoise instead of Prajapati who was usually depicted as a tortoise in earlier mythology (Muir 40). There is also the myth of all the gods creating Prajapati (Muir 38), but then their sort of confusion with the creation of Agni (the fire god) by Prajapati (Muir 40). Another myth known in the Shataptha Brahmana is about the gods being able to achieve immortality (Muir 41), but even though they were all immortal there was still an inequality that developed among the gods (Muir 44).

The Taittiriya Brahamana is second Brahmana that is part of the Yajur Veda and has some contrasting rituals and explanations of these rituals. The Shatapatha Brahmana mentioned human sacrifices, but in the Taittiriya Brahmana these human sacrifices were symbolic and that were allowed to go as soon as the fire was about to consume them (Dumont 177). The interesting thing was that they even had a list of the names that were to be used in these human sacrifices (Dumont 178-182). Although both of these texts talk about human sacrifice as an important ritual there is no evidence of actual human sacrifice (Dumont 178). Another ritual discussed in the Taittiriya Brahmana is the full moon sacrifices (Dumont 585), which require following certain procedures in order for it to be done correctly. One of these procedures would be the “ritual cleaning, heating and brushing of sacrificial spoons” (Dumont 585).

The final Brahmana that will be explained is the Gopatha Brahmana, which belongs to fourth Veda; the Atharvaveda. This Brahmana itself is split into two separate parts: the Uttara-Brahmana and the Purva-Brahmana. The Uttara-Brahmana has about 123 different sections, but 79 of these sections take ideas from other texts or they are very closely linked (Bloomfield 4-5). The Purva-Brahmana is all about “mystics, theosophical treatment of the sutra and other forms of soma sacrifice” (Bloomfield 7). Three different soma sacrifices are discussed in the Brahmana (Bloomfield 11). Since the two parts discuss different topics, scholars suggest that the Gopatha Brahmana are written by two different people (Bloomfield 8). The Gopatha Brahmana is also said to not have much originality because it was written so late in history (Bloomfield 10).

In conclusion, the Brahmanas discussed are not necessarily the most popular, but scholars had done the most research on these Brahmanas and their relation to Hindu spiritual life. Even though some of the sources provided in these Brahmanas are taken from other texts they are still considered some of the most prestigious and respected texts not only by Hindus, but by scholars as well. Another misconception is that these would be the only Brahmanas surviving, but there are many more surviving that are appended to each Veda, but are not as well known. The Brahmanas are very complex so this research would only be the scratching of the surface of the Brahmanas, but gives the basic details of what they are all about.



References and Further Recommended Reading


Bloomfield, Maurice. (1898) “The Position of the Gopatha-Brahmana in Vedic Literature.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, 19, 1-11.

Bodewitz, H.W. (1977) “Notes on the Jaiminiya Brahmana.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 2, 150-157.

Dumont, Paul-Emile. (1959) “The Full-Moon and New-Moon Sacrifices in the Taittiriya-Brahmana (Second Part): The Third Prapathaka of the Third Kanta of the Taittiriya-Brahmana with Translation.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 103 (April), 584-608.

Dumont, Paul-Emile. (1963) “The Human Sacrifice in the Taittiriya-Brahmana: The Fourth Prapathaka of the Third Kanda of the Taittiriya-Brahmana with Translation.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 107 (April), 177-182.

Haug, Martin. (1863) The Aitareya Brahmanam of the Rigveda. Bombay: Government Central Control Book Depot.

Lincoln, Bruce. (2006) “How to Read a Religious Text: Reflections on Some Passages of the Chandogya Upanisad.” History of Religions, 46 (November), 127-139.

Muir, J. (1863) “Legends Chiefly from the Satapatha Brahmana.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 20, 31-48.

Oertel, Hanns. (1897) “Contributions from the Jaiminiya Brahmana to the History of the Brahmana Literature.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, 18, 15-48.

Olivelle, Patrick. (1996) “Dharmaskandhah and Brahmasamsthah: A Study of Chandogya Upanisad.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, 116 (April-June), 205-219.

Sathaye, S.G. (1969) “The Aitareya Brahmana and the Republic.” Philosophy of East and West, 19 (October), 435-441.


Related Topics for Further Identification

Shatapatha Brahmana

Gopatha Brahmana

Taittiriya Brahmana

Jaiminiya Brahmana

Chandogya Brahmana

Aitareya Brahmana





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Article written by Tyler Scholten (April 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.


The Sama Veda

The Sama Veda is one of the four Vedas of Hindu scriptures. The Vedas are believed to be of divine origin, belonging to a class of literature known as sruti, meaning “that which is heard” (Bharati 82). According to Hindu tradition, the Vedas were divinely “heard” by seers known as Rsis, and therefore are not the product of human work or skill (Rai 2). As one of the Vedas, alongside the Rg, Yajur, and Atharva Vedas, the Sama Veda shares this divine status, and therefore a place of honor in the Hindu tradition. Although the Sama Veda is often considered the third Veda after the Rg and Yajur Vedas, in the Bhagavad Gita, one of the great epics of the Hindu tradition, Krsna describes the Sama Veda as the most important of the Vedas (Mitra 9).

While the high status that the Sama Veda has enjoyed in Hinduism is clear, unfortunately its origin is not. Many schools of thought in the history of the Hindu tradition have believed that the Sama Veda is eternal, not as a divine creation, but as co-eternal with the divine (Bharati 82). The Satapatha Brahmana claims that the Sama Veda originates from the sun, which is embodied by the deity Surya (Rai 4). In the Purusa-Sukta, the Sama Veda is said to come from the hairs of the great deity Purusa, the sacrifice of whom is said to have created the entire cosmos in the Hindu tradition (Rai 4), while still other traditions account for the origin of the Sama Veda in different ways, [for more traditions on the origin of the Vedas see Rai 1977]. Some scholars, including Raja Rai, have argued that the hymns of the Vedas were originally passed on as one before being later organized and subdivided into the four Vedas as they exist today (Rai 8). This idea accords well with the tradition of the Visnu Purana, which states that the Vedas were divided from a single source (Rai 6).

Like the Hindu thinkers of the past, modern scholars have developed varying ideas about the origin of the Sama Veda. Some scholars, working backward from the rise of Buddhism in 500 BCE, date the origin of the Vedas to roughly 1000 B.C.E. (Rai 17). Other scholars date the Vedic hymn collections as being composed over a longer period of time between 1400 and 500 B.C.E. (Rai 19). The dating of the origin of the Sama Veda is complicated by the fact that the text is comprised of a number of sections, some of which are earlier than others. Although it is impossible to say exactly when the Sama Veda was first composed, or who first composed it, it is fairly safe to date its oldest portions to the Aryan period, beginning around 1500 B.C.E. (Griffith vii). Interestingly, this inability to pin down the authorship and origin of the Vedas has been used as an argument by Hindus to support the claim that the Vedas are of divine origin (Rai 11).

The Sama Veda is not a monolithic text, but rather is comprised of a number of texts written over a large period of time, dealing with a variety of subjects. The Sama Veda is comprised of a Samhita, or collection of hymns, a Brahmana, which provides exegesis on the hymn collection, and an Upanisad, which is a text of a more philosophical nature (Rai v).

The Samhita of the Sama Veda, the oldest text of the Sama Veda, is a collection of hymns, the vast majority of which are taken from the Rg Veda (Griffith vii). The Sama Veda Samhita is not, however, simply a restatement of the Rg Veda. The hymns of the Sama Veda are altered from the form in which they are found in the Rg Veda in several meaningful ways to facilitate their ritual use (Griffith vii). The Sama Veda hymns are designed to be sung in the context of ritual and are therefore altered from the way that they appear in the Rg Veda in ways that alter the singing of the hymns (Griffith vii). Every nuance involved in the recitation of Sama Veda hymns, in a ritual context, is extremely important to the Hindu tradition, as it is believed that the truths of the Vedas become manifest in the performance of rituals (Howard 11). Also, the extent to which the hymns of the Sama Veda are considered effective, within the context of a ritual, in securing benefits for the one for whom the ritual is performed is believed to depend on the correct chanting of the hymn (Rai 38). The hymns of the Sama Veda also differ from their arrangement in the Rg Veda, as the Rg Veda organizes its hymns according to their attributed author, while the Sama Veda organizes its hymns topically, according to the object of worship (Stevenson 12). While some of these variations on the hymns of the Rg Veda are alterations of the existing Rg Veda, Griffith argues that some variant versions may even preserve an older reading than what is found in the Rg Veda (Griffith vii).

In addition to the Samhita, the Sama Veda also contains a Brahmana, which, according to an analysis of the writing style, was composed some time after the hymn collection (Stevenson 10). This Brahmana is largely concerned with describing the necessary procedures to be done before and during the chanting of the Sama Veda Samhita (Stevenson 10). The Brahmanas of the Sama Veda set the standard for the proper recitation of the Samhita, and claim that only when such standards are followed correctly will the hymns have power (Stevenson 11). Although the correct performance of ritual is central to the Sama Veda Brahmanas, these Brahmanas do cover a diversity of topics, ranging from social customs to ways of countering bad omens (Mitra 17, 18).

The Sama Veda also contains an Upanisad known as the Chandogya Upanisad (Rai 39). This Upanisad also bears a great difference in style compared to the hymn collection, which reveals that it is the product of a later time than the hymn collection (Stevenson 12). The Chandogya Upanisad is part of a larger work known as the Chandogya Brahmana. The Chandogya Brahmana is ten chapters in length, the first two chapters belonging to the genre of Brahmana and the last eight comprising the Chandogya Upanisad (Mitra 37). The Chandogya Upanisad contains an important discussion of the syllable Om, a sacred utterance in the Hindu tradition (Mitra 27). The Upanisad describes Om as the source of being, and as superior to ritual (Mitra 27).

The Chandogya Upanisad also contains several elements that subvert the social hierarchy of its time. In a number of places throughout the text, the importance of the priestly hegemony, the Brahmin class, is downplayed, while the warrior class, the Ksatriyas, are raised to a higher status (Mirta 27). This reversal suggests that true knowledge is not only available to the priestly elite. This subversion of the standard social hierarchy is continued within the seventh chapter of the Chandogya Upanisad. In this section it is argued that knowledge, even Vedic knowledge, is worthless without knowledge of Brahma, the divine essence behind all things (Mitra 35).

This subversive element is further expounded upon in the sixth chapter of the Chandogya Upanisad, which contains the famous story of Uddalaka and Svetaketu. In this story Svetaketu is a young Brahmin, who is excessively proud of his learning (Johnston 199). However the young Brahmin’s learning is proved obsolete, for throughout the story, Uddalaka, Svetaketu’s father, shows a greater depth of knowledge. Uddalaka, through a series of images, proves his greater philosophical depth by instructing his son as to the nature of Brahma, the discrete essence behind all things (Mitra 34). In this story, as in other passages of the Chandogya Upanisad, philosophy triumphs again over book learning, [for more on the story of Uddalaka and Svetaketu, see Johnston 1910]. These texts suggest a movement within Hinduism away from an emphasis on ritual and the socioreligious hierarchy, towards philosophical speculation, making the Chandogya Upanisad of the Sama Veda a key text as far as the development of Hindu thought is concerned, [For more on the Chandogya Upanisad see Mitra 1862].

The way in which the Sama Veda has been used throughout Hindu history is best exemplified through an analysis of the way it is used in the Somayaga ritual, the ritual at which the Sama Veda is primarily designed to be sung (Griffith vii). The term Somayaga refers to a sacrifice in which Soma, a plant with narcotic properties used in Hindu worship, is offered to a deity or deities (Howard 11), [for the use and possible identification of Soma see McDonald 2004]. This ritual is described in detail in the Praudha Brahmana, one of the most prominent sections of the Sama Veda (Mitra 16). The beneficiary of this sacrifice, known as the Yajamana, is responsible for funding the ritual (Stevenson iv). The ritual, which involves the burnt sacrifice of animals as well as Soma libations (Stephenson iv-vi), must be performed exactly as prescribed or, as the Praudha Brahmana argues; it will bring no benefit to the Yajamana. Throughout the Somayaga, six different groups of priests are employed by the Yajamana to assist in the performance of the ritual (Stevenson 9). These groups of priests perform different roles throughout the ritual including the preparation of various elements of the sacrifice and the singing of Vedic hymns (Stevenson 9). The group of priests, known as the Udgatar, is the group responsible for singing verses of the Sama Veda during the Somayaga (Stevenson 9). It is through this group of priests that the Sama Veda plays a crucial role in the Somayaga. The various hymns of the Sama Veda sung throughout this ritual perform the function of consecrating the sacrificial fire as well as the Soma juice that is offered as a libation (Stevenson 6), [For more on the Somayaga see Stevenson n.yr.].

The strong connection that the Sama Veda has to the Somayaga ritual is due to the very nature of the text itself. A brief look at an index of Sama Veda hymns reveals that the vast majority of the Samhita is dedicated to the praise Agni, the Hindu deity that personifies fire (Gonda 140), Soma, and Indra, the Hindu deity personifying storms (McDonald S148), [for more on Agni and his relationship to the Samhitas see Gonda 1979]. The prominence of hymns worshiping Agni and Soma corresponds to the importance of the burnt offering and Soma libation in the Somayaga. In addition to this fact, the various prescriptions governing the practice of the Somayaga are found within the Sama Veda itself, in the Praudha Brahmana (Stevenson 6).

Despite its status as sruti, the role Sama Veda has diminished significantly in contemporary Hinduism. This is partially due to the fact that such extensive sacrifices as the Somayaga, which may take anywhere from a day to over a week to perform (Mitra 16), have become less common, with the Somayaga being only performed a few times since the British colonization of India (Stevenson 11). This diminishing use of the Vedas in contemporary Hinduism is further revealed by a study published in the mid-1970s. In a survey of educated Hindu youth from across all castes, only ten percent had received any formal Vedic instruction (Ashby 52-53). Despite this shift away from Vedic study in contemporary Hinduism, the Sama Veda still holds an important place in history as a pivitol text which has significantly shaped Hindu belief and practice throughout the centuries.



Ashby, Philip (1974) Modern Trends in Hinduism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Dayanand, Bharati (2005) Understanding Hinduism. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.

Gonda, J. (1979) “Agni in “Rgveda-Samhita” 9, 66 and 67.” The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland Vol. 2: 137-152

Griffith, Ralph (1986) Hymns of the Samaveda: Translated with a Popular Commentary. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Private Ltd. in

Howard, Wayne (1986) Veda Recitation in Vsranasi. Delhi: Shri Jainendra Press.

Johnston, Charles (1910) “The Dramatic Element in the Upanishads.” The Monist 20 #2 (April): 185-216.

McDonald, Andrew (2004) “A Botanical Perspective on the Identity of Soma (Nelumbo nucifera Gaertn.) Based on Scriptural and Iconographic Records.” Economic Botany 58 (Winter): S147-S150, S51, S152-S173

Mitra, Rajendralala (1862) The Chandogya Upanishad of the Sama Veda: With Extracts from the Commentary of Sankara Acharya. Calcutta: C.B. Lewis, Baptist Mission Press.

Parpola, A (1973). The Literature and Study of the Jaiminīya Sāmaveda. In Retrospect and Prospect. Studia Orientalia XLIII:6. Helsinki.

Rai, Raja (1977) The Vedas: The Scripture of the Hindus. Delhi: Nag Publishers.

Stevenson, John (n.yr.). Translation of the Sanhita of the Sama Veda. London: Oriental Translation Fund.

Wilkins, William Joseph (1975) Modern Hinduism: An Account of the Religion and Life of the Hindus in Northern India. Delhi : B.R. Pub. Corp.


Related Topics for Further Investigation


Bhagavat Gita


Chandogya Upanisad



Praudha Brahmana

Rg Veda


Satapatha Brahmana




Tat Tvam Asi




Visnu Purana

Yajur Veda


Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by Matthew Pawlak (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.

Yajur Veda

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

Yo’sman dvesti yam ca vayam dvisma

Idam asya griva api krntami”

(Taittriya-Samhita 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!”


(Apler 49-50)

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, 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.


Related Websites


Related Topics


Rg Veda

Sama Veda

Atharva Veda

Vedic Priesthood







Article written by Brayden Wirzba (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.

Chandogya Upanisad

     The Upanisads are a collection of texts, initially oral, that were written down by one or more editors. Scholars suggest the Chandogya was one of the earliest Upanisads produced, written around the 6th century BCE (Olivelle 1996: xxxii). The Upanisads along with The Vedas, Brahmanas, and Aranyakas constitute what is considered sruti, or divinely revealed texts, by most Hindus. The Samaveda is a collection of texts to be sung by Udgatr priests, while doing soma sacrifices. The Chandogya Upanisad is an attempt to find the, “cosmic and ritual correspondence of the Saman” (Olivelle 1996: 95). The Saman is the Samaveda hymn of the soma ritual. The Chandogya Upanisad has been very influential in establishing Hindu cosmology and represents, according to some Hinduism scholars, “the transition from the archaic ritualism of the Veda into new religious ideas and institutions” (Olivelle 1996: xxiii). In general, what differentiates the Upanisads from other sruti texts are attempts to reveal the hidden truths of the rituals and chants of the Vedas (Olivelle 1996: Lii).

There are many different hidden truths revealed in the Chandogya Upanisad, but no other passage has seemed to be more influential than the story of Uddalaka and his son Svetaketu (Chandogya 6. 1-16). Svetaketu attended school in his youth learning the Vedas but came back seemingly unable to grasp the hidden meanings of the Vedas according to his father Uddalaka (Singh 45). Uddalaka taught Svetaketu that the true self, Atman, is like the water in a river, a river could be polluted, dry up, or flow into the sea. The river is just a form that water takes, and river is simply the name given to that form of water. However, the water is still water no matter what form it takes, even if it is in a cloud, a raindrop, or an ocean. Just like the water in the river, the self transfers to different bodies and can be polluted by worldly distractions, ultimately it is still the inner self (Singh 47). Uddalaka told his son to put a lump of salt into a container full of water (Chandogya 6. 13). The next day Uddalaka asked Svetaketu to retrieve the salt, but it was gone. Uddalaka asked his son to taste the water in many different places, it was salty everywhere. Uddalaka taught his son the salt was like Atman. One cannot see the salt, but it is there, it is everywhere. This helped Svetaketu, who is able to eventually realize his true self and is ultimately able to liberate himself from samsaric existence, attaining what Hindus call moksa.

The other philosophical concept often paired with Atman is Brahman, the ultimate reality of everything material. Atman is essentially Brahman, what this means is that the true self is Brahman. Brahman is the infinitely pervasive true nature of everything. Brahman is everywhere, and constitutes all aspects of the universe. [A clear explanation of Brahman occurs in the Mundaka Upanisad, “Brahman alone here extends to the east; Brahman, to the west; it alone to the south, to the north, it alone extends above and below; it is Brahman alone that extends over the whole universe, up to its widest extent” (Olivelle 1996: 274).]

The fact that Brahman has this pervasive nature has led some scholars to consider the philosophy of the Upanisads to be considered pantheistic because god, “is both the universe as unified totality and something one in the same, appropriately regarded as divine, existing as the inner core of everything. And this whole and shared essence are said to be somehow identical” (Sprigge 192). In contrast, Gods in western religions are seen to be superior to people, separate, and the creators of everything except for themselves (Sprigge 193). In this way western religions are dualistic, gods and humans are separate entities. On the other hand pantheistic theologies, like those contained in the Upanisads, are considered non-dualistic in that god, or Brahman, is all encompassing. While pantheism is an effective concept that can be used to understand the philosophy of the Chandogya, it should be noted that not all Hindu philosophies are considered pantheist.

The story of Uddalaka and Svetaketu is an example of an important feature of the Chandogya. It shows the literary technique often used in the Chandogya to convey messages, where a teacher, or guru, instructs a student, or sisya. However, a guru is not a teacher in the way westerners might think. A guru is: a spiritual instructor, an analyst, a fatherly figure, sometimes even seen as semi-divine (Mlecko 34). Ultimately, the main focus of a guru is to transmit the most fundamental spiritual meanings of Hinduism to their student. Gurus are often considered crucial to the attainment of spiritual goals and realizations for anyone (Mlecko 34). The necessity of a guru in attaining holy information is seen in the Chandogya 4. 7-15, when Indra, a god, and Virochana, a demon, visit Prajapati. Both Indra and Virochana initially spend thirty-two years learning about Atman with Prajapati, a great guru. Both god and demon leave after thirty-two years believing they understood Atman. Upon further reflection Indra realized he needed more time with his guru, and he ended up spending a total of one hundred and one years with his guru. Indra was constantly reworking his understandings of Atman. Ultimately, because Indra spent more time learning the spiritual necessities from Prajapati he received a much fuller understanding of Atman then his demon counterpart Virochana.

                       In the Chandogya 1.3.6-7, another idea is created that helps set the cosmological foundations of the varna, or class, system. This passage says that all things are made of three essential bits: brilliance, water and food and this relationship can be seen throughout the world. For example fire has these three elements, the brilliance is associated with the flames. The smoke is associated with water, or steam. The food is associated with the firewood. This relationship extends to all things in the cosmos, including the classes. The Brahmins associated with brilliance, heaven and flames; the Ksatriyas associated with water, clouds and steam; the Vaisyas associated with wood, food and agricultural labour (Lincoln 129). People who have had their consciousness altered by the same cosmic understanding are trained to accept this understanding in all of its occurrences (Lincoln 139). In this sense, the cosmology outlined in the Chandogya has agency because to this day the text still has an effect on how Hindu society arranges itself into the varna system.

It is also important to note, along with the Bhagavad Gita and the Badarayana Sutra, the Upanisads were fundamental in establishing what is known as Vedanta philosophy (Hiriyanna 151). Vedanta literally means, “end of the Vedas” (Hiriyanna 151), and refers to the final portion of the Vedas, the Upanisads. However, the meaning of Vedanta has changed over time, now the term is synonymous with the general conclusions of the Vedas (Hiriyana 151). Vedanta has many different interpretations of the same influential texts, consequently 3 major Vedanta philosophies arose: Samkara’s Advaita, Ramanuja’s Visistadvaita, and Madvha’s Dvaita (Hiriyana 152). These philosophies have different cosmological understandings because each of them had a different interpretation of the same foundational texts.

         The Chandyoga is a very influential text, partly because of its ability to articulate the nature of Brahman and Atman. Scholars have studied the meanings associated with the Chandogya vigorously. For a long time in western countries, the philosophy contained in the Chandogya has often been over represented essentially as the philosophy of Hinduism. While there is no doubt that the Chandogya is one of the most influential philosophical texts, the Hindu religion is much too vast and variable to be considered having one fundamental philosophy.


References and Further Recommended Reading

Hiriyana, M. (1949) The Essentials of Indian Philosophy. London: George Allen and Unwin.


Kunst, Arnold (1976) “Indeterminism Versus Determinism: The Seventh Prapathaka of the Chandogya Upanisad.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, No. 1: 67-72.


Lincoln, Bruce (2006) “How to Read a Religious Text: Reflections of Some Passages of the Chandogya Upanisad.” History of Religions, Vol. 46, No. 2 (November): 127-139.


Mlecko, Joel D. (1982) “The Guru in the Hindu Tradition.” Numen, Vol. 29, No. 1 (July): 33-61.


Olivelle, Patrick (1996) Upanisads. New York: Oxford University Press.


Olivelle, Patrick (1996)“Dharmaskandhaaḥ and Brahmasaṃsthaḥ: A Study of Chandogya Upaniṣad 2.23.1.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 116 No. 2 (April): 205-219.


Olivelle, Patrick (1999) “Young Svetaketu: A Literary Study of an Upanisadic Story.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 119 No. 1 (January): 46-70.


Singh, Balbir (1983) The Philosophy of Upanishads. New Jersey: Humanities Press.


Sprigge, T.L.S. (1997) “Pantheism.” The Monist, Vol. 80 No. 2 (April): 191-217.


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Article written by Brendan Bloomfield (March 2013) who is solely responsible for this content.




The Agnicayana Ritual

In earliest forms of Aryan religion [1000 BCE] there are Vedic hymns, the oldest being the Rg Veda Samhita, which consists of over 1000 hymns in praise (Rg) of various deities. Two other samhitas were produced through the Rg Veda Samhita, being Sama Veda Samhita and Yujur Veda Samhita, which together count as early orthodox Aryan scripture. The Sama Veda Samhita contains mainly scriptures of the Rg Veda which explained ways of sacrificial offerings and Vedic rituals performed with chanting (saman) performed by a certain group of priests (udgatrs) (Rodrigues 54). Included in the majority of the rituals in the sacrifice of soma, a hallucinogenic plant, and the construction of fire altars. The Agnicayana ritual exemplifies the Rg Veda chants requiring the construction of a fire altar (agni) as a gateway to pour sacrifices into over a twelve day period where it is believed that to have the host performing the sacrifice for personal gain[wealth, offspring, vitality, etc] (Rodrigues 64). It has been dated as originating around 1000 B.C., however it has been an on again-off again ritual, and has only been captured and observed once in 1975. The ritual has been best translated from the Vedic Yajnavalkya section of the Satapatha Brahmana (SB), stating that the Agnicayana rite is for a yajamana (the patron of sacrifice) to instill an immortal body on himself, in the rebuilding of the “unstrung” body of the god Prajapati (Converse 83).

A fire altar must be built in order for the Agnicayana ritual to take place. The preparation can take up to a year before the ritual can fully take place, and the timing of the ritual must be precise as well. The ritual must take place in between the time of the new moon and the full moon in spring (Rodrigues 64-65), and then preparations for the ritual space must be concise and made in sequences “The ritual site is a recon­struction of the cosmos itself, whose dimensions are mirrored in that of the human microcosm. One sees, in this ancient rite, early applications of the astronomical sciences in the necessary timings of each event, of mathematics, in its computations and structural geometries, and of the physical sciences in the casting of bricks, the making of fire, and the offering of oblations” (Rodrigues 65). The fire altar can be made into different shapes, however the most common shape is that of the bird of prey (syena) that is dedicated to the god Agni. Agni has been described as eating the forest, a killer of demons and enemies, and although a god, he is never disengaged from his element, fire. Agni is closely interconnected with the home/family/clan/rituals, being represented by domestic fires that burn constantly; Agni guards the home and all within it (Staal Vol. I). Through the Agnicayana ritual, one prays to Agni to help in the desired outcome of the ritual.

Agnicayana is the building of the fire alter, which is an important part of the ritual. The fire altar includes placing of a minimum of 10 800 kiln-fired bricks, placed in a specific and detailed layout, in five layers with the sacrificial layer placed on top. Fire altars in other rites are normally made of packed earth.  The Agnicayana ritual uses bricks, and every brick is placed with a special mantra attached to each individual one; with special actions carried out, and the religious meanings of each part of the rite carefully explained (Converse 83). Recently, the most common shape of the alter is that of a falcon, syena or suparna; even though the altar can be made into different shapes, the bird shaped alter is most common. The altar dimensions and brick pilings have been considered to be partly based on the cosmos, where every piece has a number and that number signifies a time and place, which fits into the ‘astronomical code’ or symbolic associations with shapes and time. The bricks are classified into two different kinds: ordinary (lokamprna) and special (yajusmati). For the yajusmati bricks, each brick is shaped a certain way and labeled/marked in a unique way, and the total of the bricks made is to be 396. This aids in the symbolism, as there are 360 days in a year and then the additional 36 days left as the days of the intercalary month. The first layer laid out with the yajusmati bricks has 98, the second 41, and third 71, the fourth 47, and the fifth 138; all containing certain equations within each of the numbers and together to form the number of days in a lunar year, half year, and a naksatra year. For the lokamprna bricks, there are a total of 10 800, and this refers to the number of muhurtas in a year, and are divided up in 3 ways for the layout: 21 go into the garhapatya, 78 to the eight dhisnya hearths, and the rest to the ahavaniya altar (Kak 7(1995)). The five layers of the bricks indicate the five divisions of the year, the five physical elements, and five senses (Kak 1 2005). Many of the sequences and numbers are grouped together in triples; this symbolizes the relevance to the cosmos during the Agnicayana ritual. At the home, the patron will have three altars: one circular (earth), half-moon (atmosphere), and the last square (sky), which symbolizes the head, heart, and body of the Cosmic Man (purusa). During the Agnicayana ritual, the two altars representing the sky and the atmosphere will be built to the east end of the ceremony (Kak 2 (2005)). After the five layers a wooden mortar is placed on top (a ‘sixth layer is the heavenly world’), and on top of the mortar the ukha will be placed (which represents a ‘seventh layer, immortality’) (Kak 3 (2005)). The connectedness of the cosmos with the construction of the fire altars are very precisely practiced and honored during the Agnicayana ritual.

After all the preparation and during the correct time, the Agnicayana ritual is officially held over a twelve day period, where each day signifies the beginning of a new layer to the altar and sacrifices given to certain deities. The first day begins with the yajamana (patron of sacrifice) and 17 different priests carrying three sacred fires in different pots (Staal Vol. I); the ukha pot, the main ritual vessel which symbolizes Sakti, the womb of all creation, is prepared from clay. The yajamana goes through various rites of passage [one instance has the yajamana given a sacred garment and staff to wear for the remaining twelve days until the final bath on the twelfth day (Staal Vol. I)], and a vow of silence for the remainder of the ritual aside from during the Vedic prayers (Rodrigues 66). During the second day the mahavira pot, the main vessel of the Pravargya, is prepared from clay, and on the third day measurements of mahavedi and the bird-shaped offering altars are laid out in the east of the enclosure. The fourth day consists of the starting of the construction of the first layer of the fire altar, where mantras are spoken to each brick by the advaryu priest on behalf of the yajamana; a new domestic altar is constructed to replace the old hearth; soma, a hallucinogenic plant, is purchased while the subrahmanya priest invites Indra, Agni (as Rudra), and other Brahmins to join the Soma ingestion on the sutya day; and the first Pravargya (offerings of boiled milk) and Upasad (offerings and oblations of clarified butter (ghee)) are executed in the morning and at night. On the fifth, sixth, and seventh day a morning practice of the Pravargya and Upasad is performed, followed by the building of a new layer to the altar accompanied by prayers and hymns, and then closes with the Pravargya and Upasad. On the eighth day the Pravargya and Upasad open the morning with the laying of the fifth layer to the altar while the yajamana prays for the original desires of the ritual for himself, and a oblation of substances are made into the fire for Rudra (Agni) with the Udgata priest singing chants around the altar, and then closes with the evening Pravargya and Upasad. The ninth day opens the same, with the Pravargya and Upasad performed, and then the mahavira pot and other things used in the Pravargya are put down on the new offering altar in the shape of a man; the ukha pot is placed in the middle of the bird shaped altar; oblations of ghee are made into the sacrificial fire with a large wooden ladle (preseka) called the ‘flow of wealth’ and is followed by many more offerings and oblations; and the Agnisomiya animal sacrifice is performed. From the tenth – twelfth day the pressing of the Soma is conducted and ceremonies will continue for two days and nights with the constant consumption and offerings of Soma to the priests and gods; fires are installed on the hearths in the sadas; eleven animals are sacrificed for various deities; the yajamana and his wife and the priests take the avabhrtha bath; a final goat is sacrificed for Mitra-Varuna. In closing, the yajamana and his wife go back home bringing with them three of the fires from the ceremony where he will then place them in the home, and keep performing the morning and evening Agnihotra for the rest of his life (Staal Vol. I). The last step helps in the patron keep the connection with the gods and his promise to them he had made throughout the Agnicayana ritual.

The Agnicayana ritual was traditionally performed as an important aspect to the Vedic literature in India, and preserves the earlier features of India’s culture in distinguishing between Buddhism and Hinduism (Staal Vol. I).

References and further recommended readings

Converse, Hyla S. (1974) History of Religions: the Agnicayana Rite: Indigenous Origin?. The

University of Chicago Press.

Kak, Subhash C. (1995) From Vedic Science to Vedanta. Louisiana: Adyar Library.

Kak, Subhash C. (2005) The Axis and the Perimeter of the Temple. Los Angeles: Sangama 2005.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism – the Ebook: An online introduction. Journal of Buddhist

Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

Staal, Frits (1983) Agni: The Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar. Vol. I. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass


Tull, Herman W. (1989) The Vedic Origins of Karma: Cosmos as Man in Ancient Indian Myth

and Ritual. New York: State University New York Press.

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Article written by: Erica Wendland (2010) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Atharva Veda

The Atharva Veda is the fourth of four Vedic hymn collections that are revered by Hindus.  It has twenty books in total; its primary purpose is to provide directions on how to act auspiciously within the Hindu tradition (Bloomfield xxix). Although the Atharva Veda is considered Vedic literature, it is fairly different from the other texts within the Vedic canon.  The Atharva Veda focuses on “spells, charms and incantations”, which promise to “fulfill all worldly desires of human mind” (Karambelkar xi).  This differs greatly from the sacrificial themes of the three other Vedas (Karambelkar xiii).  However, despite the Atharva Veda’s uniqueness, it still has a vital place in the Vedic canon.  The structure of the Atharva Veda, its directions on how to act auspiciously, and its influence in Hinduism are important to discuss when examining the Atharva Veda.

The Atharva Veda’s twenty books incorporate seven hundred thirty-one hymns, which are then subdivided into six thousand verses (Winternitz 120).  There are three major divisions of the Atharva Veda—the first grand division (books 1-7), the second grand division (books 8-12), and the third grand division (books 13-18).  Since the last two books of the Atharva Veda were added at a later date, they are not included in the three grand divisions.

The first grand division contains short hymns, which consist largely of charms and curses (Whitney cxlvii).  This division of the Atharva Veda is regarded the most important section of the text; out of all the divisions, its hymns are the most widely read (Whitney cxlviii).  The second grand division consists of longer hymns than the first division (Whitney clv).  These hymns provide instructions on how to perform priestly duties in an auspicious way (Whitney clv).  The third grand division contains books that are characterized by “unity of subject” (Whitney clviii), meaning that the remaining six books of the Atharva Veda have been kept together, and “constitute [as] a whole by itself” (Whitney clviii).

Instructions on how to act auspiciously is a main theme throughout the Atharva Veda. Its hymns can be categorized into different types—those to obtain long life, those to acquire desired good wishes from deities for households, those to ward off misfortune, and those to excuse errors, to name a few (Joshi ix).  There are also sorceries in the Atharva Veda, but these are used to benefit oneself and to harm others, and are therefore considered as auspicious (Bloomfield xxix).

The role of the Atharva Veda was very important in the Indo-Aryan culture.  Karambelkar reasons that agriculture and raising livestock were probably the main professions of people of that time (58).  The Atharva Veda contains incantations that protect cows and their calves, along with charms that are performed to protect the sowing and harvesting of crops (Karambelkar 58-59).  Verses in the Atharva Veda also describe other aspects of ancient culture—weaving, metal smiths, and chariot builders (Karambelkar 61).  In addition, the incantations of the Atharva Veda reveal something about how the medical practices of the Indo-Aryan culture were performed.  Through reference to the Atharva Veda, it can be concluded that citizens of that time believed that disease was “caused by supernatural powers, particularly demons” (Karambelkar 77).  Incantations in the Atharva Veda were used as a means to defend against different diseases incurred amongst the Indo-Aryan citizens.  The contents of the Atharva Veda give scholars some idea about the Indo-Aryan culture—both its practices, and its belief system.

Despite all the cultural information that the Atharva Veda gives, describing Indo-Aryan lifestyle is not its main focus.  Instead, “magic is the main and essential subject matter of the [Atharva Veda]” (Karambelkar 91).  The magical incantations that the Atharva Veda consists of are both “defensive magic” and “offensive magic” (Karambelkar 91).  In other words, the purpose of magical incantations is to remove unpleasant powers, to preserve blessings and to avoid harmful things.  The Atharva Veda is divided into two parts—the Atharvana discusses auspicious practices, while the Angirasa concerns itself with sorcery (Karambelkar 92).  The hymns of the Angirasa section are “full of the spirit of intense hatred”, condemning to death anyone who interferes with the magical incantations (Karambelkar 92).  On the other hand, people performing from the Atharvana “generally invoked Heaven and Earth”, with an understanding that both entities would participate in the magical blessing (Karambelkar 96).  Both sections focus on magic as a means to bring about desired effects, whether that is prevention from the bad, or calling upon the good.

Because the Atharva Veda is largely filled with magical chants and incantations, Bloomfield believes that it received strong opposition in ancient Indo-Aryan culture (xxix).  In fact, some followers of Hinduism actually question the authority and authenticity of the Atharva Veda because of its magical contents (Bloomfield xxix).  However, Adhikari suggests that the religious contents of the Hindu tradition “are infected with magic in inseparable identity” (135-6).  Bloomfield agrees, stating that witchcraft and sorcery are incorporated into every aspect of Hindu religious thought and action (xxxix); he argues that witchcraft has “penetrated…the holiest Vedic rites” (xlv).  Despite the fact that many oppose the position of the Atharva Veda in the Vedic canon, Bloomfield suggests that its place in the Vedic scriptures is essential to the Hindu tradition (xl).

Since the Atharva Veda discusses auspicious behavior in the Hindu tradition, it seems appropriate to discuss the rituals described in the text, which are intended to bring about auspiciousness.  The first way in which the Atharva Veda promotes auspicious behavior is the way in which its hymns are categorized into different ganas, which are groupings of mantras (Karambelkar 167).  Hymns of the same type compose a gana.  The grouping of similar hymns assists in the correct recitation of hymns in the Atharva Veda (Karambelkar 168). This promotes auspicious behavior.  Water is a very important aspect of the Atharvan rituals because it is considered a protection against demons and a healing remedy (Karambelkar 168).  Fire is also important because it is used for priestly rituals and sacrifices that accompany the recitation of hymns (Karambelkar 168-9).  Symbolism is another very important part of Atharvan procedures.  Certain things like the shooting of arrows, the color of a cow’s milk and the burning of chaff demonstrate auspicious behaviors, which Atharvan rituals promote (Karambelkar 171).  Chanting in ganas, the use of water and fire in sacrifice, and symbolism are all important aspects of Atharvan ceremonies.

To demonstrate some of the different aspects of correctly reciting a hymn from the Atharva Veda, it is appropriate to examine a specific hymn and its recitation rituals.  An example of an Atharvan ritual is the hymn to heal ksetriya (inherited disease).  First, the priest “washes the patient outside of the house while reciting II.8.1,2 at dawn” (Karambelkar 173).  This chant consists of the following:

1. Up have risen the majestic twin stars, the vikritau [italics added] (‘the two looseners’); may they loosen the nethermost and the uppermost fetter of the [ksetriya] (inherited disease)!

2. May this night shine (the [ksetriya]) away, may she shine away the witches; may the plant, destructive of [ksetriya], shine the [ksetriya] away!” (Bloomfield 13).

The second portion of the ritual is to recite the third verse:

3. With the straw of thy brown barley, endowed with white stalks, with the blossom of the sesame—may the plant, destructive of [ksetriya], shine the [ksetriya] away!” (Bloomfield 13).

While this hymn is being chanted, the priest crushes up the plant aforementioned, collects mud, and sews up a freshly hunted animal, tying it to the leg of the diseased patient as a type of good luck charm (Bloomfield 287).  The next section of the ritual is to chant the fourth verse:

“4. Reverence be to thy ploughs, reverence to thy wagon-poles and yokes!  May the plant, destructive of [ksetriya], shine the [ksetriya] away!” (Bloomfield 13-4).

During this portion of the ritual, the priest places a plough and cattle near the diseased patient, while pouring water over it (Karambelkar 173).  The fifth and final part of the ritual sees the priest pouring ghee into a pot holding water, which is then placed in an empty house while reciting the fifth verse (Karambelkar 173):

“5. Reverence be to those with sunken eyes (?), reverence to the indigenous (evils?), reverence to the lord of the field!  May the plant, destructive of [ksetriya], shine the [ksetriya] away!” (Bloomfield 14).

Thatches from the empty house which contains the pot of water are placed in a ditch (Karambelkar 173-4).  Ghee is then placed in this ditch, followed by the patient, who drinks the water (Karambelkar 173-4).  More treatments are given to the patient and eventually the ritual ceases.

This example demonstrates some of the aspects within the Atharvan ritual—the different uses of water, the employment of priestly activity, and the many different applications of symbolism.  While the symbolism is not completely clear, the practices “seem at any rate to be built up…in the sense of ‘field’” because of its references to plants, fields, and plowing (Bloomfield 287-8).  Since agriculture was a major part of Indo-Aryan culture, the symbolism refers to things that many citizens could recognize and identify with.  Along with the usage of symbolism, explicit instructions are provided on how to perform this ritual properly.  This example, along with numerous other hymns in the Atharva Veda, emphasizes and promotes auspicious actions.  The Atharva Veda instructs individuals and priests how to perform auspicious behavior through the use of rituals and chants.

The Atharva Veda is not something irrelevant; it holds authority in present-day Hinduism.  Its instructions on auspicious behavior, its rituals, and its magical incantations contribute a unique and vital aspect to the Hindu Vedic canon.  The Atharva Veda is a valuable tool to ancient scholars, as well as modern-day readers and interpreters, in describing the actions of the Indo-Aryan culture and their religious rites.  The Atharva Veda’s use of symbolism, along with its instructions on how to recite hymns auspiciously, is essential to the Hindu tradition today.  The structure of the Atharva Veda, its role in the Indo-Aryan culture, and most importantly, its directions on acting in an auspicious way through the incorporation of magic, are all important aspects of the text.  The Atharva Veda holds an essential role within the Vedic canon.


Adhikari, T.N. (2002) “Some Socio-Magical Aspects of the AtharvaVedaParisista.” In Abhijit Ghosh, ed.  Atharvavana: A Collection of Essays on the AtharvaVeda with Special Reference to its Paippalada Tradition. Kolkata: Sanskrit Book Depot.

Bloomfield, Maurice (1969) Hymns of the Atharva-Veda, Together With Extracts From the Ritual Books and the Commentaries. New York: Greenwood Press.

Joshi, K.L. (2002) Atharva-Veda Samhita. Delhi: Parimal Publications.

Karambelker, Vinayak Waman (1959) Atharvavedic Civilization, Its Place in the Indo-Aryan Culture. Nagpur: Aryabhushan Press.

Veer, Yjan (1979) Language of the Atharva-Veda. Delhi: Inter-India Publications.

Whitney, William Dwight (1996) Atharva-Veda-Samhita. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

Winternitz, Maurice (1972) A History of Indian Literature. New Delhi: Pearl Offset Press.

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Article written by: Julie Steeves (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.

Navagrahas: The Nine Planetary System

The worship of nine planetary gods, the navagraha, is widespread among Hindu sects.  Nava is translated as “nine” and graha as “planets,” although it etymologically means ‘one which is seized’ (Yano 381).  The concept of graha as a heavenly body has evolved into the current nine planetary system, the navagrahas.  First, a demon which eclipses the Sun and Moon was recognized, which was later given the name Rahu and his truncating tail, Ketu, was considered separately.  Next, five planets were included in this system followed by incorporating the Sun and Moon which brought the count of celestial bodies to nine.

Navagraha (Nine Heavenly Forces) Temple, Assam

The nine “planets” in the system followed, in order by the days of the week, are the Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn, with Rahu and Ketu added as influential bodies but not lords over a weekday.  The order of the planets aligning with the days of the week is thought to have originated during the third century and became widespread amongst Hindus during the following century (Yano 383).  Most Sanskrit texts describing the planets in the weekday order, therefore, should be dated past the third century.  By this time, it became a general, widespread and unbreakable rule that the planets were to be named in accordance with their corresponding days of the week (Pingree 251).  Before this, many arranged the planets by how advantageous they were beginning with the most positive as Venus and Jupiter, the neutral planet of Mercury next, and then the unfavourable Mars and Saturn (Pingree 251).  The study of the heavens (astronomy) at this point in time in India was thought of as sacrosanct among the educated classes.  The celestial beings were thought of as gods and the worship of them is reflected in the Vedas (Das 197).

Navagraha (Nine Celestial Forces) Shrine, Veerammakaliamman Temple, Singapore

The nine grahas worshipped by the Hindus are seen as heavenly bodies that bring fortune or misfortune to people’s lives (Coleman 128).  The Hindus who worship these celestial bodies are mainly those who believe in astrological influences over their lives (Pingree 249).  Within Sanskrit texts, descriptions and characters of the nine planets are given in such a way so they can be applied to the lives of those born under the planets influence (Pingree 250).

The most powerful is the Sun known as Surya or Ravi.  Surya is seen as the personification of the orb of light and heat and is portrayed with a golden complexion and rays of glory surrounding his head.  He will sometimes be seen as having two or four arms and holds a lotus in one hand.  Some have even termed him “the lord of the lotus” (Coleman 128).  Surya is complex as he is believed to be tri-form; Brahma or creation in the morning (east), Visnu or preservation at noon and Siva or destruction in the evening (west) (Coleman 129).

The next graha is the moon known as Candra or Soma.  Candra is depicted as a young, beautiful male who has two arms, one holding a club and the other a lotus, and is generally riding an antelope drawn cart.  Occasionally, the moon is depicted as a female and is then known as Candri.  Candra is of the warrior caste and presides over Monday.  It is believed that those born under Candra will have many friends, high distinctions and an enjoyable life (Coleman 131).  The daily positions of the moon are considered the twenty-eight lunar mansions in the zodiac called naksatra.  They are thought to be invented by Daksa and are the personification of the daughters of Daksa and the mythological wives of Candra (Coleman 131).

Mangala, or Mars, presides over Tuesday.  This planet is also believed to be of the warrior caste and produced from “the sweat of Siva’s brow” (Coleman 132).  Mangala is represented as red of flame-coloured with four arms, holding a trident, club, lotus and spear, while riding on a ram (Coleman 132).  The disposition of Mangala is said to be fierce and those born under him are thought to undergo great misfortunes and losses.  However, to battle under him is considered to be fortunate.

Mercury is the next graha known by the Hindus as Budha, and rules over Wednesday.  He is thought to be the son of Candra/Soma and Rohini and thus the firstborn of the Candrabans which are considered to be the “lunar race of the sovereigns” (Coleman 133).  He is represented in many different ways including on a carpet, on an eagle, cart drawn by lions, mounted on a lion or mounted on a winged lion.  In some depictions he is holding a sceptre and lotus and in others a scimitar, club and shield.  Budha is the god of merchandise and the protector of merchants and being born under him is considered fortunate.

The regent of the planet Jupiter and preceptor of the gods, called their guru, is Brhaspati.  He is of the Brahmin caste and rules Thursday.  He is depicted in a golden or deep yellow hue, sitting on a horse holding a stick, lotus and his beads (Coleman 133).  Hindus are in strict worship of him and believe it is fortunate to be born under him.

The planet Venus and the god Sukra, comes next.  He is Brahmin as well and is the preceptor or guru of the ‘giants’ and is held in great esteem within Hinduism (Coleman 134).  Sukra presides over Friday and is thought to be the son or grandson of Brghu.  He is depicted as middle aged with a white complexion and is mounted in a variety of ways including on a camel or an animal resembling a rat or a horse and is holding a large ring, stick, beads, lotus or sometimes a bow and arrows (Coleman 134).  Being born under Sukra is said to bring great fortunes such as the gift of the power of omniscience and blessings of life which include many wives.

Sani, the planet Saturn, presides over Saturday.  He is of the Sudra caste and is depicted as a dark, old, ugly and lame with long hair, nails and teeth and an evil disposition.  He is usually clothed in black, mounted on a black vulture, raven or elephant holding a sword, arrows and two daggers in his hands (Coleman 134).  To be born under him is considered unfortunate as the tribulations of life are attributed to Sani’s influence and wickedness (Coleman 134).  Ceremonies held in worship of him are often just to appease him so no bad will come to those partaking in the ceremony.

Varuna, the planet Neptune, is the Hindu god of waters and regent of the west side of Earth.  He is illustrated as a four armed light skinned man riding a sea animal with a rope in one hand and a club in another (Coleman 135).  He is worshipped daily as one of the regents of the earth, especially by those who fish the lakes in Bengal before they go out.  People also often repeat his name in times of drought to obtain rain (Coleman 135).  It is believed that his heaven was formed by Viswakarma and is 800 miles in circumference.  Varuna and his wife, Varuni, are said to reside there seated on a throne of diamonds while they are attended by others (Coleman 135).

The next, and last of the navagrahas are Rahu and Ketu.  Rahu is thought to be the son or grandson of Kasyapa and is the planet of the “ascending node” (Coleman 134).  He is often worshipped to avert evil spirits, nasty diseases, earthquakes and other unfortunate events, and especially during an eclipse (Coleman 135).  He is portrayed in numerous ways including being mounted on a lion, flying dragon, an owl and a tortoise and sometimes with a spear in his hand.  As well, Rahu is generally portrayed without a head as it is thought to belong to the other part of him, Ketu.  Ketu is the planet of “descending node” (Coleman 135) and is described as sitting on a vulture or as a head on the back of a frog.  Ketu is thought to be Rahu’s tail by some while others believe Ketu to be comets (Yano 383).

Woman appeasing Rahu (Navagraha temple, Assam)

The navagrahas represent more than just a system of astrology within Hinduism, but a belief system that alters how the believers live from the moment of birth.  With the seven planets of varying fortune residing over each weekday, the timing of events is essential.  Within this study of the heavens has come a deeper understanding of the surrounding universe early on in Indian culture, as can be seen through further research, such as in Das’ Scope and Development of Indian Astronomy as well as in articles by Pingree (such as Representation of the Planets in Indian Astronomy and Indian Planetary Images and the Tradition of Astral Magic).  The magnitude of worship of the grahas is certainly rooted deep within Hindu practices as people strive to achieve the ultimate fortunes that each day offers in this life.


Coleman, Charles (1995) The Mythology of the Hindus. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services.

Das, Sukumar Ranjan (1936) “Scope and Development of Indian Astronomy.” Osiris. Vol. 2. pp. 197-219.

Pingree, David (1965) “Representation of the Planets in Indian Astrology.” Indo-Iranian Journal. Vol. 8. pp. 249-267.

_____ (1989) “Indian Planetary Images and the Tradition of Astral Magic.”  Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes. Vol. 52. pp. 1-13.

Yano, Michio (2005) “Calendar, Astrology, and Astronomy.” In The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism. Gavin Flood (ed.). Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing. pp. 376-392.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Brishput or Vrihuspati
Shuni or Sani
Brahman Caste
Sudra Caste
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Article written by: Samantha Ludwig (2010) who is solely responsible for its content.

Mantras in Hinduism

Mantras are a complex feature of the Hindu tradition that people sometimes do not understand all that well.  Different mantras are used for different things.  “For India, Mantras are real, palpable, mental artifacts to be revered and mastered, to be used or misused (Alper 2)”.  Mantras are very important in religion but they are not completely significantly religiously they have other significance also.  Mantras are important for religious and non religious purposes.  The history of mantras can be extensively related to Indian people’s religious life (Alper 2).   One way of defining mantras is that they are sacred utterances, that are uttered sometimes daily, and sometimes for special occasions.  There are formal and also informal definitions of mantras.  Mantras are used in a variety of contexts.  Hinduism sees certain mantras as only being useful for certain things. Each mantra has a specific function with a specific time and place for use.  The Hindu tradition sees mantras as effective because they are believed to be useful and powerful (Alper 6).  There are Vedic, Puranic, and Tantric mantras (Alper 5-6).  Certain types are used to achieve some sort of escape from hardships from outside nature.  There are certain mantras that are used to cope with the daily up and downs of everyday life.  Besides these, there are also mantras that address the problems of the whole of human nature (Alper 7-8).  Scholars debate whether mantras are language (Alper 9).  The Rg Veda has several mentions of mantras.  It is hard to understand mantras when you are not immersed in Indian life but it is possible if we try, it is just more difficult (Alper 9).

Mantras are considered to be sacred utterances.  Mantras may be recited or chanted when religious rites are performed.   They may also be uttered when one is not doing a ritual act (Burde 28).  Mantra means “instrument to think” (Burde 28).  Mantras are usually regarded as utterances that will aid you if you need some form of protection.  Two functions are said to be performed by mantras.  The first is the power to not get injured and a possible wish fulfilment (Burde 28).  Mantras first appear in the Vedas but they also appear in the tantric texts and the Puranas.  The guru is usually charged with teaching mantras. There are several types of mantras.  There are Vedic mantras and also meditative mantras. The Guru gives his student several mantras and helps them learn them, so that one day the student can put the mantras he has learned to good use (Burde 28).

There are six Vedic Mantras.  One of the Vedic mantras is agnin… which is a command.  The second Vedic mantra is mitro na ehi…, which is a sacrificial formula.  This mantra accompanies an act.  The third Vedic mantra is yo’sman dvesti…, which is purely used for ritual purposes.  It is recited when the soil of a ritual enclosure is prepared with a wooden knife, a sphya.  The fourth Vedic mantra is devasya tva savituh…, which you recite frequently and it indicates that material is being measured for an offering.  The fifth Vedic mantra is indra jusasva which are considered to be mantras in their normal meaning.  The sixth Vedic mantra is ha bu ha bu ha bu… which is chanted by the Udgata priest (Staal 201-207).  These mantras represent what most of the Vedic mantras look like (Alper 59).  It is not possible to compare different mantras such as Vedic, tantric or other mantras to each other (Alper 63). This is because these different mantras have things that make them characteristically unique and they are interpreted differently and so because of this, it would be almost impossible to compare these mantras with each other (Alper 63).

There four basic types of utterances, each of them is responsible for certain parts of the religious acts.  They are all focused on some aspect of the presentation.  The first mantra deals with presenting the characteristics.  These are utterances that define parts of the situation such as the qualities and identities.  The second one deals with presenting the attitudes.  These are expressions of personal feeling, such as personal wishes.  The third mantra deals with presenting the intentions.  These are statements expressed in the first person that expresses the commitment that person has to that action; why is this particular person doing this.  The fourth one deals with presenting the requests.  These are commands that are directed to a second party because they wish to establish a relationship with that person (Alper 99).  In order to perform a ritual, the person who wishes to perform the ritual must be purified (Alper 99-103).  The multiple repetitions of bija mantras are felt to accomplish the transformation.  Bija mantras are felt to be symbols of the elements in their essential form (Alper 103).

Mantras are felt to put a person in contact with divine power, and that is why they are essentially controlled through very strict rules (Alper 165).  There are certain prerequisites a person must have in order to recite a mantra.  The person must have a proper moral basis, purgation, excellent practical skills, sufficient intellectual grounding, and the status of a person in an esoteric tradition (Alper 165-166).  The person who wants to perform a mantra must have purified themselves before the ritual to get rid of all the bad stuff.  They must be of a moral standing, so they can not have done anything bad.  The must have the proper skills to perform the mantra.  They must be from the right class in society.  And they must have sufficient knowledge about mantras.   A mantra must be performed by a disciple who pays close attention to the proper ways of saying the mantra (Alper 166).  There is one mantra that is identified as comprising all other mantras.  It is the AUM mantra.  Pranava and also Vedic mantras are said to be the means of knowledge and also a way to help you achieve moksa (Alper 167).  If a person does not understand a certain mantra it is due to their ignorance or absence of their mind in finding the meaning; which is there if you look (Alper 167).  Another place mantra is used in Yogic Meditation.  Using mantra in meditation is attested in the classical yoga meditation.  The aim of Yoga is to receive a vision of your outer body Purusa.  Because a mantra is not necessary it is not useful in this situation (Alper 204).  There is a relationship between mantra and god but it is not given in much detail (Alper 205).  There is claimed to be a relationship between the mantra and god, because when you meditate you are claimed to be realizing god in the meditation.  It is not the same as the relationship between the object in human language and the word, which has to follow certain rules.   In Yoga  the individual is attempting to attain a bond with the divine.  Mantras are similar because you are trying to enlighten yourself by saying your sacred utterance (Alper 205).

The field of mantras is very large.  “The fundamental, role of mantras, their great variety, and the powers ascribed to them, and the fact that belief in their efficacy has survived in India from the Vedas down to our own day does indeed confront us with a problem: How is one to explain the mantric phenomenon?” (Alper 296).  There is a tendency that has become widespread that believes that the existence of mantras can be explained rationally.  It is believed by some that mantras can only be properly understood and explained within Indian tradition itself (Alper 296).

Since there are varying definitions of mantras it is possible to say the word is untranslatable (Gonda 247).  Mantras are considered to be formulas of worship and believed to contain a presence of a deity.  It is believed that if correctly prounced the deity will appear from it (Gonda 248).  The reason the mantra is produced by your mind is to gain deific assistance when you need help of some kind (Gonda 251).  There are several mentions in the Rg Veda of mantras which are called the songs to the Gods (Gonda 252).

Mantras are mentioned in several different ways.  Mantras can be used as an arm for those who make the rules and help decide religious orthodoxy (Alper 17-18.).   “Not only does the power of mantra have clearly designed policing powers against Vedic enemies, it also is so highly charged that, unless properly and carefully handled, it can fall back upon  and burn its handler” (Alper 18).  To be considered a perfect mantra it must be done with the greatest of care, and said exactly how it should be, and that it be done in a poetic way (Alper 19).  One of the most common mantras is the mantra that is given to a boy at his sacred thread ceremony, Upanayanam.  This ceremony is to celebrate his coming of age.  The mantra which he should repeat three times a day is called the Guyatri mantra (Rodrigues 132-135).

Can mantras be considered speech acts?  In order to designate something a speech act it involves viewing language a certain way and having everybody believe that is the way to view it.  The best way to approach theories of language is to see it in action.  Because mantras are recited by a person with specific intentions they are considered speech acts.  Some discussions have said that mantras are obscure, because it is hard to pin point what the true meaning is behind them (Alper 144-145).  Because, of the fact that mantras are intended to be indicative and refer to things (Alper 149).  But overall it would appear that since mantras are actually trying to convey meaning they should not be considered speech acts (Alper 149).

References and Further Recommended Reading

Alper, Harvey P. (1989) Mantra.  Albany: State University of New York Press.

Burde, Jayant (2004) Rituals, Mantras and Science. India: Shri Jainendra Press.

Dhavamony, Mariasusai (1982) Classical Hinduism. Rome: Gregorian University Press.

Dowson, John (1979) Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology and Religion, Geography,

History, and Literature. Great Britain: The Gresham Press.

Fowler, Jeaneane (1997) Hinduism: Beliefs and Practices. Great Britain: Sussex Academic


Gonda, J. (1963) The Indian Mantra. Brill.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism—The Ebook: An Online Introduction. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books Ltd.

Staal, Frits (1990) Ritual and Mantras: Rules Without Meaning.  New York: Peter Lang

Publishing, Inc.

Williams, George M (2003) Handbook of Hindu Mythology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Yelle, Robert A. (2004) Explaining Mantras: Ritual, Rhetoric, and the Dream of a Natural

Language in Hindu Tantra.  New York: Routledge.

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Blood Sacrifice



Rg Veda


Sacred Thread Ceremony


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Article written by: Brittany Hermanson (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.