Category Archives: B. Vedic Religion and the Sanskrit Language

Women’s Roles in Vedic Rituals

The role and importance of women in earlier Vedic literature is much more apparent, and observable than it is today. The participation of women was vital, and much more significant in previous centuries, during Vedic srauta [an extensive body of sacrifices performed on specific occasions; see Leslie (1992)] ritual (Leslie 1992:21). Two myths that are said to be the main cause of women’s restrictions in sacred Vedic ritual are Varuna’s noose and Indra’s curse (Leslie 1992:20). Indra’s curse is said to be the mythic catalyst that led to restrictive rituals that must be adhered to when a woman is participating in religious sacrifice. The Taittariya Samhita reveals that when Indra (God of lightning and thunder) killed Visvarupa, he transferred one third of the “stain” of murdering a Brahmin to women ( 2.5.1). The “stain” that was transferred to women comes in the form of menstrual blood, and is seen as dangerous and impure. It is regarded in this way because the menstrual blood is literally Indra’s curse. Therefore when a woman is menstruating she is not able to perform her religious duty; a ritual must be postponed or a substitution is made in her place. The Taittariya Brahmana states that half the ritual dies if it is performed while the wife is menstruating ( and for this reason she is prohibited from entering the sacrificial area.

Varuna’s noose is the other mythic tale that has given authority to the types of restriction that women must endure. Although the notion of Varuna’s noose is to restrain the power of women, it also represents the many aspects of femininity that are crucial for worship and religious sacrifices. The wife of the sacrificer is bound with a species of grass called munja, which occurs once the wife enters the sacrificial area. She is bound while sitting because it is said that she becomes virile while in this type of position (Leslie 1992: 25). The binding of the waist is a symbolic representation of Varuna’s noose, which he uses to ensure that the propagation of the created world occurs within the bounds of a properly conceived cosmic order (Leslie 1992:20). Women are an important aspect because they contain a certain kind of power that is attributed exclusively to females, and is expressed primarily through their sexuality and reproductive capacity. Leslie has found support for this notion in the Taittiriya Brahmana, declaring that a sacrifice without the wife is no sacrifice at all; her presence in the ritual assures effective cosmic reproduction which coincides with human reproduction (1992:24). The tying of the “noose” symbolically ties the wife to her husband, and brings her into a meaningful relationship with the gods. The Taittiriya Brahmana concludes that through this working relationship with the gods the wife causes the sacrifice to copulate with her; bringing the sacrifice within her thereby intensifies and expands her feminine creative power ( Since many Vedic sacrifices include the element of reproduction, the woman is an essential participant. It is through her feminine creative power and the symbolic tying of the rope, which promotes proper or controlled human procreation (Leslie 1992:26).

The asvamedha (horse-sacrifice) is one of the most well known Vedic rituals and has been in existence since the time of the Rg Veda. (Dange 361) Although this ritual has not been performed for centuries, it exemplifies the importance that the wife plays in relation to its concerns with reproduction. Historically the asvamedha is performed by a king partly to gain offspring and gain royal glory [see Dange (2000) for the complete process and variations of the asvamedha]. At one point in the beginning of the ritual the king lies between the thighs of the wife who is named vavata (who is the beloved one) (Dange 377). This physical action between husband and wife is a symbolic act, to bring fertility to the wife; it also mimics the action that the queen performs with the horse after one year. At the end of the year, with the finishing of the ritual, the king’s queens perform a short ritual after the horse has been exterminated, which infuses the horse with vital breath, and brings fertility. As Dange has briefly explained, the three wives circle the horse clockwise and then counter-clockwise, repeating this three times on both sides for a total of nine times. While they are circling the horse they are also fanning it which is said to instil vital breath within themselves and the horse. After this is completed the mahisi (chief queen) lies near the horse, is covered with a large cloth, and performs a mock copulation. This mock copulation is supposed to infuse the queen with the symbolic seed of her husband in hopes that she will produce children. The ability to produce offspring is very important in Vedic tradition, especially in terms of producing a male heir. The need for the presence of the wife is undeniable; without the female power, ritual reproduction would not be possible.

The Rg Veda, Sama Veda, and Atharva Veda are the earliest known texts of Indian religion that mention the involvement of women (Leslie 1992:17). Although women are present during sacrifice and play a role in the ritual, they are not able to offer sacrifice. This restriction placed upon women is reinforced by The Laws of Manu. It is stated that sacrifice performed by a woman is displeasing to the gods and inauspicious for men (Manu IV. 205-6). In orthodox Hindu tradition, women are not educated in Vedic verse or ritual; therefore they are not able to perform sacrifice due to lack of experience and understanding. A wife attempting to make a sacrificial offering on her own could bring on a multitude of negative effects to herself and those around her, especially her husband, because of her inexperience. While a woman is not “traditionally” able to perform sacrifice on her own, her presence is essential for her husband to properly perform the ritual. Julia Leslie has found that although The Laws of Manu prohibits women from performing the role of sacrificer, the laws insist that a wife is ordained to take part in joint religious rituals (1989:109). The epics and puranas also have textual evidence that enforces the role of the wife as the individual who shares in her husband’s religious duties (Leslie 1989:110). The magnitude of the woman’s presence is compounded by the fact that a man has no authority to act alone. A man cannot fulfil his religious duties to gods, ancestors and guests without a wife: for the wife shares the sacrifice, bears the children and prepares the food ( Markandeyapurana 21.70-2). The relationship between husband and wife may seem unequal in the orthodox tradition of Vedic rituals, but it is a shared partnership; one may not act without the other.

References and Further Recommended Reading

Buhler, Georg (1964) Laws of Manu/ translated with extracts from seven commentaries. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass

Dange, Sadashw Ambodas (2000) Vedic Sacrifices Early Nature.New Delhi: Aryan Books International

Leslie, Julia (editor) (1992) Roles and Rituals for Hindu Women. Rutherford; Madison; Teaneck; Fairleigh Dickinson University Press

Leslie, Julia (1989) The Perfect Wife. Delhi: Oxford University Press

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Introducing Hinduism. New York: Routledge

Vesci, Uma Marina (1992) Heat and Sacrifice in the Vedas. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Asvamedha (Horse-sacrifice)



Indra’s Curse

Laws of Manu

Rg Veda Samhita

Sama Veda

Satapatha Brahmana


Taittiriya Brahmana

Taittiriya Samhita

Vajasaneyi Samhita

Varuna’s Noose

Noteworthy websites related to the topic

Written by Danielle Nail (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.


Varuna is one of the oldest gods in Hindu history and is noted as a “universal monarch” (Choudhuri 33). In the past, Varuna was said to be king of the gods holding utmost power in Vedic India. Scholars say that Varuna is a “majestic Jehovah, preserver of eternal order and redresser of wrongs” (Hakin 105). Varuna himself is related to the skies and water controlling the cosmic order. However, though there are only roughly twelve hymns dedicated to him in the Rg Veda, Varuna is still in charge of many things, and has many obligations as a Vedic god. Varuna’s main obligations involve both creating and preserving the heaven and earth, and protecting the waters, including all oceans and rivers, celestial and terrestrial. He is to stay strong to the rta (keeping cosmic order); his duties include commanding the darkness of the night, and keeping a separation between night and day. The sky blankets Varuna. “He knows not sleep, and nothing escapes his vigilance, for the stars, his eyes, are without number” (Hakin 105). He created the rivers, and maintains the volume of water so they do not overflow, continuing to watch over the water’s entirety. The duties of this majestic deity make the stars come out at night and magically Varuna’s powers cause the stars to disappear during the day (Choudhuri 56). Along with these duties, he holds the task of keeping earth in its full form, and being an omniscient Vedic god, Varuna “knows the path of the birds flying through the air. He, abiding into the ocean, knows also the course of the ships” (Choudhuri 34).

Though Varuna is rarely depicted, if one is to look hard enough, images are profuse. Varuna is depicted as a fierce white god, with perfect posture, riding upon a marine monster known as a Makara. The Makara is still not fully understood. Some believe it to have originally been a dolphin-like creature, depicted as an aquatic being, seeming to be half-crocodile. Others believe it to have the legs of an antelope and the tail of a fish. According to the Vedas, Varuna is said to have four faces, one closely resembling the features of Agni, the god of Fire. He has many arms of grace, and a noose. Varuna’s noose is made from a snake, and is grasped in his right hand, accompanied by a shining gold foot. He wears a short, floating, sleeveless cloak of gold coloring, and complete golden armour. Varuna lives in a house of one thousand doors, thus being constantly attainable to man and humankind (Wilkins 38). Choudhuri also believes that Varuna’s palace is one of a thousand gates; inside resides Varuna upon his golden throne (34). Varuna’s palace has multiple doors to symbolize and represent his “uninterrupted movement and knowledge” (Choudhuri 34).

Vedic history explores the idea that Varuna is not solely affiliated with just water itself, but “to the water elements of ether and earth” (Nakamura 44). Many profound scholars like Georges Dumezil believe Varuna to be connected to many different ideas and concepts. Dumezil believes there to be a link between Mitra (god of Oath) and Varuna. In his essay of Mirta-Varuna, Dumezil interprets “Mitra as friend” and links Varuna’s name to “the root Var- (to bind)” (67). Wilkins states that Mitra and Varuna come together as one in many hymns and are written about quite often, though Varuna is occasionally solo in other hymns (37). Each time Mitra is mentioned in a Vedic hymns, Varuna is also elevated (Dumezil 66). Both Mitra and Varuna are considered to be great gods, and in control of the seas and rivers, and are associated closely with each other in the Atharvaveda (Choudhuri 154). Thus being said, Varuna is closely associated with Mitra, accompanying Mitra as a divine king. Choudhuri states Varuna to be “the ruler of gods, along with all men” expressing both “physical and moral demands” (38).

Myths support that Varuna became a powerful Vedic god through Indra (god of War and Weather). The myth states that a demon stole the entirety of the universe’s water, creating a large conflict with the heavens and the earth (Wilkins 42), and it was not Varuna alone who fought off the demon, but fought alongside Indra. It was stated that it is “because of this that Indra was able to supplant the lordship of Varuna and become lord of the gods himself” (Nakamura 44) taking the ultimate power from Varuna. Yet Varuna still remains a part of the Hindu culture. Though Varuna still holds power, he is not nearly as an important god that he once was. Even such as it is said, Varuna is not widely worshipped by many but still plays an important role in the lives of some. In particular, Varuna is strongly worshipped by people about to go out on long sea voyages, and fishermen as they set out to sea. He is worshipped by farmers during the long, hot, dry seasons of drought. Varuna is also worshipped by those who fear him, mostly in an attempt to free themselves of their sins and wrong doings (Hackin 105). Varuna liberates us of all sin; “keep far from us the evil (Nirrti) with unfriendly looks, and liberate us from whatever sins we may have committed” (Choudhuri 34).

Said to be the Vedic god of punishment, Varuna holds the order of the skies and waters. Of all Hindu deities, Varuna is the judgemental god, providing justice and punishment to everyone. In the book Indra and Varuna in Indian Mythology, Choudhuri states that “Varuna removes the bad elements of yajna and protects its virtuous elements. Varuna is vigilant over satya (truth) and Anrta (falsehood)” (82-3). Thus being true, he does not allow people to disobey Hindu law, and is extremely vigilant of people’s sins. When a sin is committed Varuna sees all and hears all, and those people are punished rigorously. Many human beings fear Varuna as he is in charge of the moral actions and the thoughts of all people. “Varuna is the sovereign under his attacking aspect, dark, inspired, violent, terrible, warlike” (Dumezil 72). Varuna is a protector of the good, and punishes the evil, as he cannot be fooled by anybody. Varuna is said to be able to extend the lives of the good and shorten the lives of the sinners. Here the use of Varuna’s noose is interpreted, as it is “characterized with the power of seizing and trying foes, the demons, and the sinners” (Choudhuri 159). When Varuna confronts a sinner, bargains are made, contracts are enforced; he lassoes them with his noose, as they plead for forgiveness and mercy. Although Varuna is only a judgemental deity, if he chooses, Varuna is able to share the obligations of Yama (god of Death). Of all Vedic gods, Varuna has the highest of moral character, and is called upon for in the notion of purity (Wilkins 40).

Like many other Vedic gods, Varuna is accompanied by a wife, Varuni. Though little is written by scholars about Varuni, westerners believe her to be the goddess of wine. Varuni co-existing through Varuna, sits among a throne scattered with diamonds, and among them sit other gods and goddesses such as Samudra (the seas), Ganga (the Ganges) along with other gods and goddesses of springs, rivers, and lakes in Varuna’s courts (Wilkins 44). To this day, even though Varuna is not as powerful as he once was, he still plays an important role in Hindu lives. Being an omniscient god, Varuna has unlimited control over the Hindu people, and every action is judged by Varuna himself. Perhaps the most unruly reasoning behind Varuna’s popularity is judgement. Varuna appears to play a powerful role in the lives of sinners, and under strict duties, rids Hindu society of such sins and wrong doings. Though Varuna is not widely worshipped, he nevertheless is a powerful and important deity in Hindu culture and tradition. It is Varuna who expresses his power through his actions and though his obligations as a Vedic deity.


Choudhuri, Usha (1981) Indra and Varuna in Indian Mythology. New Delhi: Nag Publishers

Dumezil, Georges (1988) Mitra-Varuna: An Essay of Two Indo-European Representations of Sovereignty. New York: Zone Books.

Gatwood, Lynn E. (1895) Devi and the Spouse Goddess. New York: The Riverdale Company Inc.

Hackin J. et al. (1834) Asiatic Mythology: A Detailed Description and Explanation of the Mythologies of All the Great Nations of Asia. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company

Kinsley, David (1986) Hindu Goddesses. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Nakamura, Hajime (1992), A Comparative History of Ideas. Delhi: Mortilal Banarsidass.

Wilkins, W.J (1882) Hindu Mythology. New Delhi: Rupa & Co.

Related Topics for Further Investigation










Rg Veda




The Ganges




Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

“Varuna.” Encyclopedia Mythica from Encyclopedia Mythica Online.

Article written by Erica Goy (April 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Upanisads

The sacred Indian texts, the Upanisads, contain the accumulation and interpretations of the many philosophical ideas presented in the Vedas, forming the concluding portion of Veda. For this reason the Upanisads are referred to as the Veda-anta, literally meaning the end or anta (kumar 37). Underlying this literal meaning is a far more implicit of spiritual interpretation of a central goal or purpose, whereby their ultimate reason for existence – their highest Knowledge – is expressed (Prabhavananda 39). Such inference suggests that within the Upanisad writings are the central essence of Vedic teachings (Radhakrishnan 138). In Sankara’s introduction to the Taittiriya Upanisad, he says: “Knowledge of Brahman is called Upanisads, because in the case of those who devote themselves to it, the bonds of conception, birth, decay, ect., become unloosed or because it destroys them altogether, or because therein the highest God is seated.” (Radhakrishnan 138). As Sankara’s interpretation of the essence of these texts indicates, the underlying meaning behind the Upanisads has developed into a secret doctrine, which enables the expression of truth destroying error and ignorance (Radhakrishnan). The word, Upanisad, itself implies an implicit spirituality. Derived from upa ni sad, “sitting down near,” Upanisad means to sit down near a teacher (Radhakrishnan 138). While this interpretation is of most significance, the Upanisads have other underlying meanings including the secret teachings and knowledge of the Gods (Prabhavananda 39). This idea of secret doctrine and secret teachings is exemplified by the few individuals and groups that are interested in spiritual development. The language present within the Upanisads also conjures beliefs of secrecy through word selections such as rahsayan (meaning secret) and paraman guhyam (meaning supreme secret) (kumar 39-40). The secrecy of teachings found within these texts implies the esoteric nature of the ideas present within the Upanisads emphasizing the importance of subjectively grasping their concepts rather than analyzing or describing them (Kumar 39).

The many ambiguities concerning the Upanisad’s authorship and dates of composition lead to them being regarded as impersonal (aparusheya), as their teachings are from more than one rsi (Kumar 38). The Upanisads have no set individual philosophical theories, containing ideas and interpretations derived through intuition, leading towards readers towards the truth in life (Radhakrishnan 140-141). Contrasting with the Veda’s externalization through Vedic rituals and sacrifices, the Upanisads focus on an inwardness, openly ridiculing the rituals and practices of Brahmin priests (Kumar 40). The Upanisad texts recognize priestly ritualistic worship as preparation for true “enlightenment,” as a manner of mental discipline to aid in the recognition of spiritual insight (Kumar 40). This realized inwardness is recognized as Atman and Brahman, translated as the supreme spirit, Brahman literally means the “ever growing,” the “expanding,” the “Absolute” (Raju 49). Atman is often associated synonymously with Brahman, meaning “spirit” or “self,” being the highest reality attained by human beings (Raju 49). The Upanisads are complementarily concerned with the recognition of two forms of experiences, internal and external, which contribute to a realized inwardness (Kumar 41). External experiences are concerned with the physicality of the senses, such as sight, sound, touch, taste, etc., while internal experiences are concerned with experiences which lead to the discovery of the inner most self, Atman (Kumar 41). The Upanisads recognize two sources of awareness, higher (para) and lower (apara), which allow individuals to have internal and external experiences. Apara vidya classifies and studies physical, mental, and emotion experiences, giving them names and recognizable forms (Kumar 41). Para vidya is achieved through the attainment of Atman, allowing objects to be recognized in their true form (Kumar 42).

While the total number of existing Upanisads is uncertain, one hundred and eight texts, of varying lengths, have been preserved. The literary style and manner found in these works varies greatly, often exemplified within individual pieces of work (Prabhavananda 39). Little to nothing is known about the rsi authors(s) who composed these texts, as well as the time periods in which the Upanisads were written. The Indian philosopher, Sankara, composed several commentaries on the Upanisads, where he recognized sixteen of the hundred and eight confirmed Upanisads as authentic and authoritative (Prabhavananda 40). Sankara wrote elaborate commentaries on ten of the sixteen texts, while he discussed the other six in his Vedanta Aphorisms commentary (Prabhavananda 40). The ten in which Sankara composed commentaries around have become regarded as the principal Upanisads, containing the primary objects of attention for Hindu religion. The ten principal texts include: Isavasya, Kena, Katha, Prasna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Chandogya, Brhadaranyaka, Aitareya, and Taittiriya (Prabhavananda 40).

The Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, believed to be composed first is the largest of the Upanisad texts. This Upanisad belongs to the transition period between the Aranyakas and the Upanisads as it is a Forest Treatise and an Upanisad (Raju 54). The philosophical speculations found within this text lead to the reality of Atman, where everything in the material world, species of animals, and the laws of nature and ethics originated from (Raju 54). The Brhadaranyaka specifically says that Atman is Brahman where its nature is consciousness and bliss, indicating the light of Atman is and the same as the light of the sun (Raju 54).

In the Isavasya Upanisad, Atman is described as the lord of the Universe, expressing pure activity, movement, having no definite description which truly expresses its nature (Raju 55). The Kena Upanisad examines the profound connection between Atman and the senses and an organ, questioning that which makes the mind, senses, and speech (Raju 55).

In the Katha Upanisad the story of Naciketas, son of Vajasravasa, is described. Naciketas gives away all that he has to charity in a ceremony, thereby angering his father who in turn sends him to the house of death (Raju 55). At the house of death Naciketas waits three days without eating for the god Death. As result Death grants Naciketas three boons. For his last boon Naciketas asks Death to instruct him in what occurs to people after they die. Having no choice Death is forced to answer his question, revealing in the process, the secret of the universe, that Atman is found within everyone. Through Naciketas’ story in the Katha Upanisad, Atman is explained as the ultimate truth, being imperishable with no birth or death, where there is no deeper or greater form of reality than Atman itself; it is existence and being (Raju 56).

The Mundaka Upanisad uses the tale of two birds to distinguish the existence of the two kinds of knowledge, higher and lower. While one bird eats sweet fruit the other simply looks on, similarly to the manner in which Atman is present within the body to enjoying the pains and pleasures of the world while being unable to unbind itself from the ties that hold it to the world (Raju 56).

Considered by some scholars to be the most important of the Upanisad texts the Mandukya Upanisad explains the nature of Atman as it passes through four states: the state of pure Atman, waking state, dream state, and the state of deep sleep (Raju 47). In the waking state Atman is called vaisvanara (the worldly person) as Atman is a gross body, identifying itself with the physical body, directing it consciousness outwards (Raju 57). The dream state identifies Atman as taijasa (the person of the psychic force), projecting its consciousness inward, distinguishing the objects and things found within this state as results from the impressions of the waking state (Raju 58). In the state of deep sleep Atman is referred to as prajna (Intensely Conscious Being), as people are in a state of complete unity and rest, finding absolute satisfaction within themselves (Raju 58).

The Taittiriya Upanisad presents the five ways of explaining the world in the form of secret meaning: physical entities (adhilokam), gods or luminaries (adhijyotisam), creative powers (adihividyam), creativity of the sexes (adiprajam), and the world as it originates from Atman (Raju 59). Through a mythologically cloaked story of creation, the Aitareya Upanisad presents the philosophically important account of Atman’s creation of man and the gods. This text establishes the relation between macrocosm and microcosm, and between man, the universe and the penchant towards spiritual absolutism and idealism (Raju 60-61).

The Chandogya Upanisad identifies Brahman. Brahman is the Supreme spirit, the entire universe; it is found within every heart in the depths of all beings. Brahman is like the Unconsciousness; it watches and retains every experience. People are identical to Brahman, unable to act without it (Raju 61). The Svetasvatara Upanisad details the numerous doctrines found within its time period, discussing Maya (the God of the creation of the world) as the source of the world (Raju 61).


Krishna, Daya (1991) Indian Philosophy a Counter Perspective. Delhi: Oxford University Press

Kumar, Frederick L. (1991) The Philosophies of India: A New Approach. Wales: The Edwin Mellen Press Ltd.

Prabhavananda, Swami (1980) The Spiritual Heritage of India. California: Vedanta Press

Radhakrishnan, S. (1971) Indian Philosophy. London: George Allen and Uwin Ltd.

Raju, P.T. (1971) The Philosophical Traditions of India. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Introducing Hinduism. New York: Routledge

Related Websites

Related Topics

Isavasya Upanisad

Kena Upanisad

Katha Upanisad

Prasna Upanisad

Mundaka Upanisad

Mandukya Upanisad

Chandogya Upanisad

Brhadaranyaka Upanisad

Aitareya Upanisad

Taittiriya Upanisad




Written by Jessica Durand (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Indian Grammarians and the Philosophy of Sound


The tradition of studying language, sound and communication in India is as old as the subcontinent itself. Vast amounts of works have been written about grammar and its relation to theology by Indian grammarians, beginning centuries before the time of Jesus Christ. Perhaps these accounts of the Sanskrit language—intricately breaking it down into a handful of verbal roots and phonemes—are so meticulous and amazing because the writers believed in the divinity of language and sound; they reverently explored every aspect of the language and philosophically speculated on its connection to the Supreme Being, or Brahman, and through that, liberation (moksa). This article examines the contributions of two prominent, ancient Indian grammarians, Panini and Bhartrhari, to the Indian tradition of theologically oriented linguistics. This is followed with a discussion of the connection between sound and the divine as it is conceived in the Hindu tradition.

Panini was a highly influential grammarian who, in the fifth century BCE wrote a monumental work of linguistic analysis known as the Astadhyayi. Even to this day, the Astadhyayi remains unsurpassed in its comprehensive and complex brilliance. The work is a complete grammar of the Sanskrit language, including classical (or Vedic) Sanskrit, the language in which the Vedas were composed. Sanskrit is highly complex in its organization and subtle in its execution and intonation; there are forty-nine phonemes in the language, divided into vowels, consonants, and dipthongs, or combined vowel sounds. The consonants are structured according to where in the mouth they are produced. For instance, they may be produced in the throat (gutterals), back of the mouth (palatals), with the tongue on the roof of the mouth (cerebrals), with the tongue on the back of the teeth (dentals), or with the lips (labials). There are five different nasal letters (“n” sounds) and three forms of “s” (silibants) (Pathak 35). It consists of eight chapters, each further divided into four, and contains around four thousand sutras (or rules) that reference categories of verbal roots (dhatu) (Coward and Raja, 113). Panini’s explanation of Sanskrit grammar as it appears in the Astadhyayi thoroughly explains the entire organization of the language and it remains faithful to these rules today; it was the first such work to trace an entire language to a small number of verbal roots (Klostermaier 70). The language is categorized into two lists, the dhatupatha (the most basic verbal roots) and ganapatha (nouns, verbs, etc that are applied to the lists) (Coward and Raja 14). The Astadhyayi explains how each word in classical Sanskrit is able to be reached at, beginning with two basic categories—affixes and bases, which are of two types as well, verbal and nominal (ibid 15). Panini also uses abbreviations to denote recurring characteristics; the Astadhyayi is remarkably systematic and thorough. Panini points out the geographical variances in how Sanskrit is spoken, referring to the different inflections as those of the “northerners” or “southerners” etc. The emphasis is placed, however, on the language as it was spoken by the cultured and educated people of the time (sista) as the authoritative version that Panini was most interested in (Coward and Raja, 113).

Panini is well-known for his work because it has been preserved through the years and is still referenced, but he is not the earliest Indian grammarian. In his work he makes note of other linguists before him and many, such as Katyayana, Patanjali and Bhartrhari, have followed him.

Bhartrhari lived quite sometime after Panini, around the fifth century CE. He was also a popular grammarian whose works were very influential. His most notable effort, the Vakyapadiya, discusses the philosophic conception of the relationship between the spoken word (“outer form”) and its “inner meaning” (Sivaraman 214). Bhartrhari is credited with developing the theory of language known as sphota, from the Sanskrit word sphut, meaning whole (Sivaraman, 214). The term sphota actually means something like bursting forth. For analogy, when the seal is broken on a pop bottle, there is an immediate and abrupt release of once-contained air; with sphota, the hearer intuitively perceives and understands the meaning of the word in an instantaneous moment. The Vakyapadiya expounds on the idea that the spoken word appears to have differentiation but it really does not—it exists in the mind of the speaker as a “unitary gestalt,” or sphota. The listener hears the variation in tone and inflection of the spoken word(s), but ultimately perceives the meaning of the whole word, as a unity (Sivaraman 216). The idea is that the meaning exists in the mind of both speaker and hearer, but it is through sounds that the meaning is transferred.

Bhartrhari does not subscribe to this idea fully; he says that the “spoken words serve only as the stimulus to reveal or uncover the meaning which was already present in the mind of the hearer” (Sivaraman 216). Bhartrhari explains this idea by suggesting that the mind understands sound in two aspects: word-sound (dhvani) and word-meaning (artha). Sphota is the undifferentiated whole, of which dhvani and artha are two sides of the same coin. There is a deep spiritual connection between the communicable word and the thought that inspired it; they develop simultaneously according to this philosophy (Sivaraman 220). Grammarians [of this persuasion] also say that communication is possible among human beings because language and meaning have the same base in a divine consciousness; the Ultimate Reality of Brahman/atman. Because spoken sounds have this unique connection to the divine, that the written word does not share, language can function as a Yoga—as a path to spiritual realization (Sivaraman 221).

A prominent idea behind the Indian philosophy of language, as demonstrated in the sources from ancient grammarians like Panini and Bhartrhari, is that the spoken word can communicate what is incommunicable—the divine. In the West, culture is very visually oriented [i.e. to the printed word, documents, films, and other media]; the oral dimensions of knowledge are often overlooked or undervalued (Beck 2). For their entire recorded history, Indians have been studying language, whereas in the West it has only recently begun. The Indian grammarian tradition has highly influenced the Western study of linguistics (Beck 50). As well in India, the importance of oral knowledge has long been advocated. The Vedas are considered to be divinely revealed to the rsis (or seers), who are regarded as spiritually perfected ones—such that “the Divine Word could reverberate [through them] with little distortion” (Coward and Raja 50). Mantras, such as om (or aum), are common in the Vedas and their repetition is seen as a way to reach high states of concentration and even moksa. Om [also called the pranava or ur-mantra] is considered to be Brahman in the form of sound: it is the beginning and ending of all that exists and all that will exist. It is the Sabda-Brahman, the Word-Brahman—the manifestation of the divine in sound. In the letters of the mantra aum, as explained in the Mandukya Upanisad, the ‘a’ stands for the waking state, the ‘u’ for the dream state, and the ‘m’ for deep sleep, hence aum is all-encompassing; the ultimate revelation (Klostermaier 71).

As mentioned previously, sound has a special orientation to the divine. This means that anything recorded is just an attempt to code sound which is too subtle to be fully captured by the written word. To truly understand the word and thereby its entire meaning, it is necessary to memorize the words so that they become part of your consciousness (Coward and Raja 36-37). Oral transmission of the Vedas has thus been a standard orthodox Hindu practice; writing cannot ever cover all of the nuances of spoken language and is therefore a discipline of secondary importance (Sivaraman 212).

Each letter of the Sanskrit language, often referred to as a non-verbal energy, has a numeric connection with the physical and psychic body. Mantras are then used in meditation to bring one in closer alignment with the cosmos, speeding one towards moksa. It is believed that each syllable or root sound has a mathematical connection to specific areas of the body, known as the cakras, and those areas correspond to the cosmos (Pathak 19-30, 207). Each verse in the Vedas is considered to be a mantra because the texts were divinely revealed and the entire sacred universe is present (albiet in fragmented forms) in these sounds. To perfect the proper pronunciation and grammar that is required to gain spiritual merit through the medium of language, as presented by Bhartrhari and others, is quite the feat of intellect. However, full liberation will only take place once one has relinquished any attachment to this feat—and has emptied him or herself like the rsis to the divine consciousness of sound (Sivaraman 223-224).


Beck, Guy L (1993) Sonic Theology: Hinduism and Sacred Sound. Columbia: University of Southern Carolina Press.

Bhate, Saroja and Johannes Bronkorst (1997) Bhartrhari: Philosopher and Grammarian. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Cardona, George (1997) Panini: A Survey of Research. Dehli: Motilal Banarsidass.

Chomsky, Noam (2006) Language and Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Coward, Harold G. and K. Kunjunni Raja (1990) Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies: The Philosophy of the Grammarians. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Deshpande, Madhav M. (April-June 2002) “The Fluidity of early grammatical categories in Sanskrit.” In The Journal of the American Oriental Study. pp. 244-248.

________ (July-September 1997) “Who inspired Panini? Reconstructing the Hindu and Buddhist counter-claims.” In The Journal of the American Oriental Society. pp. 444-465.

Emeneau, M.B. (1988) “Bloomfield and Panini.” In Language. pp. 755-760.

Ford, Alan, Rajendra Singh and Gita Martohardjono (1997) Pace Panini: Towards a Word-Based Theory of Morphology. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.

Klostermaier, Klaus K (1989) A Survey of Hinduism. New York: SUNY Press.

Krishnaswamy, Revathi (issue 1, 2005) “Nineteenth century language ideology: a post-colonial perspective.” In Interventions. Pages 43-71.

Pathak, Manish Kumar (2004) An Introduction to Sanskrit Grammar. Delhi: Bharatiya Kala Prakashan.

Sivaraman, Krishna (ed.) (1989) Hindu Spirituality: Vedas through Vedanta. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Vasu, Srisa Chandra (ed. and trans.) (1988) The Ashtadhyayi of Panini, volume one. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Vasu, Srisa Chandra (ed. and trans.) (1988) The Ashtadhyayi of Panini, volume two. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Whitney, William Dwight (2003) Sanskrit Grammar. New York: Dover Publications.

Zammit, Michael (July 1996) “He is You are what I am: from the unique to the universal.” In Asian Philosophy. pp. 109-115.

Related Topics for Further Study







Indo-Iranian languages








Websites Related to the Topic

Written by Thera Body (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Sphota Theory and Its Influence on Mantra

In Hinduism there are two dominant views about the connectivity between word meaning (varna) and word sound (dhvani), which make up sabda, or linguistic sound in general (Beck 8). One view is called Mimamsa, which tries to establish that the Veda is divine law and that one can only come to know dharma from Vedic command (Beck 55). This idea relies on the pretences that meaning (artha) and “the Eternal Word” can only exist in the Veda “and does not manifest in any other form apart from the specific linguistic constructions found there” (Beck 63). The theory attempts to explain that individual letters are the main substance of sacred speech (Beck 52). The grammarian view is different in that it allows for Sabda-Brahman [Sabda-Brahman refers to the sonic absolute (Beck 8)] to exist “both in the cosmos and within normal human consciousness” (Beck 63). The concept of sphotavada and the sphota theory were developed by the grammarians and the Mimamsa School discards the sphotavada because it undermines their doctrine that relies on the “reality of Vedic words” (Beck 68). The sphota theory tries to depict “the mysterious manner by which meaning is conveyed in sentences” which is a cognitive approach to the “intuitive perception of the Absolute as Sabda-Brahman” (Beck 52). Sphota also illustrates that words (sabda) and sentences are important in conserving the Vedas (Beck 64).
The sphota theory “refers to the interior apprehension of meaning in language” (Beck 8). Sphota comes from the Sanskrit word sphut which literally means “to burst forth or when applied to language a bursting forth of illumination or light” (Coward 12). This means that words, specifically in Sanskrit, get their meaning from something set intrinsically within them, and literally ‘shed light’ on to what they are referring to. “Probably the simplest and clearest image for the meaning of sphota is that of a light bulb flashing on when one understands (“gets”) an idea” (Beck 67). Sphota has two parts, internal and external, both important, and reliant on one another. One is the sound which the meaning is carried in (dhvani), and the other is the actual meaning that the sound carries (varna) (Coward 12).

Notions of speech as sacred sound are revealed mainly in the Vedic texts, the Brahmanas, the Upanishads, Aranyakas, and the Vedangas (Beck 23). The Rg-Veda, which is the oldest of the Vedic texts, is said to be “impregnated with sacred speech” (Beck 25) and has extended insight into the origins of language (Beck 36). The sphota theory was originally developed by grammarians Patanjali and Bhartrhari who wrote the Mahabhasya and Vakyapadiya respectively (Beck 63). “Wider concepts concerning the philosophy of grammar in India draw mostly from Patanjali and Bhartrhari” (Beck 63). According to grammarians, sphota is a “kind of meaning-bearing sound revelation within normal human consciousness” (Beck 63), and meaning (artha) comes from human consciousness, it is something that comes from the mind, and does not dwell in things or “objective existence” (Beck 63-4). From the Mahabhasya, Patanjali’s definition of a word is “that sound from which there arises the knowledge of things in the affairs of the world” (Beck 64).

Understanding language and meaning is very important in the Hindu religion. Mantras are a major part of their daily life, “the chief instrument of tantrism” (Bharati 101), and are based on the major Hindu texts like the Vedas (Bharati 104). A brief definition of mantra is; a spiritual utterance “to be recited at the time of spiritual exercise” (Bharati 107). There are two uses for mantras, either in a planned ritual or ceremony, or in “spontaneous meditation” (Bharati 121). Mantras like the Gayatri Mantra are used daily.

Language (vak) has origins that are explained in the Rg-Veda. There are three references to vak in the text, “the Goddess Vak…, vak as speech in general, and vak in the symbolism of cows” (Beck 25). The vak explained in the Rg-Veda mentions the meaning that exists in even the sounds produced by birds and beasts (Beck 25). This extends to even the heavens, where thunder is supposedly the voice of Vak (Beck 26). The Rg-Veda contains a tale about the creation of human speech, and how it came to be because of a quarrel between Indra and Vayu. The two Gods went to Prajapati for help, and when the soma that they were fighting over was divided up Indra took offence to his small portion and made it so that the speech of man would be unintelligible to the Gods (Beck 26-7).

There is only one hymn about the Goddess Vak in the Rg-Veda. It asserts her divinity and power, and along with a similar hymn from the Atharva-Veda, is “the earliest document of the personification of speech as a productive principle of energy” (Beck 28). Later Vak is expanded and even has influence on “the earliest meaning of the word Brahman” which was “sacred word.” This shows a direct relationship between language and the primary concepts of Brahman and Hinduism (Beck 29).

Mantras are related to the sphota theory because of the mystic origins of the mantras. There is an assumption that mantras are language because many are often a recitation of Vedic texts, but that does not mean that they are all language (Staal 253). Bija, or seed mantras, like Om and Aum, are probably the best known type, and consist of only one syllable. Stobhas mantras are the Vedic forms of bija mantras, and also only contain one syllable (Staal 227). Both types of mantras do not contain language per-say, but are supposed to be a means of realizing Brahman (Staal 253). The Om syllable is believed to be reminiscent of the child of Brahma with the same name, who defeated the Asuras, or demons, when they were attacking a city. As a reward to the son the make it so “no holy text shall be chanted without Om” (Beck 29).

Sphota is the “transcendent ground in which the spoken syllable and the conveyed meaning find themselves unified” (Coward 13). People use language to think. The great goddess of language, Vak, is even associated with the goddess of learning Sarasvati (Coward 5). And, the Brahmanas point out that the hymn about Vak and language should be recited when students first meet their teachers (guru) (Morgan 282). With such an intrinsic connection between knowledge, language, and meaning it follows that once a person can use a single syllable mantra to calm their mind, and focus on its undefined meaning, then perhaps they can use that to understand Brahma, and find mindful silence and liberation.

Work Cited and Related Reading

Beck, Guy L. (1993) Sonic Theology. South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press.

Bharati, Agehananda (1975) The Tantric Tradition. New York: Samuel Weiser INC.

Coward, Harold G. (1997) The Sphota Theory of Language: A Philosophical Analysis. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publications.

Morgan, Kenneth William (1953) The Religion of the Hindus. New York: The Ronald Press Company.

Staal, Frits (1996) Rituals and Mantras: Rules Without Meaning. Delhi: Motilal Banardsidass.

Related Websites

Related Research Topics







Vak Goddess

Written by Kathleen Barteaux (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Philosophy of Sanskrit Grammar

Language is possibly the most important aspect of human social life and interaction that we know of today. Although scientists have studied various languages and their sources for ages, they have never found another animal on this planet that is able to communicate quite the way humans can, exchanging abstract ideas and conceptual representations through words alone. Since ancient times, the Hindu tradition in India has paid close attention to the use of language in everyday life, and how it is able to effortlessly convey meanings, thoughts, impressions, beliefs, and other complex notions that can be demonstrated in no other manner. Language was so important to Hindus that they incorporated it directly into their spiritual practices, and it became yet another medium for reaching their ultimate goal, moksa: realisation of the Ultimate Truth within oneself.

Although there have been hundreds of languages spoken across India since ancient times, the Hindus selected Sanskrit as the language in which to write their spiritual literature. Obviously then, Sanskrit must be considered an extremely important aspect of the Hindu tradition, so important that some Hindus believed in a deified language, the goddess Vac. According to her myth, the world was created through her divine speech, and the Sanskrit used today is merely a part of that language she spoke (Coward 3). Others believed, according to what is written in the Brahmanas, that the Indian warrior god, Indra, was the first to create coherent language when he analysed speech utterances in terms of their parts and created a grammatical structure (Coward 13). However, the Hindu grammarians who studied Sanskrit held a more practical view of the language, and put a great deal of time and effort into examining its subtleties. Most of the Hindu grammarians studied how the grammar was initially constructed, including the most famous grammarian, Panini. He is believed to have lived between the 7th and 3rd centuries BCE, and was the author of the oldest surviving literary work on Sanskrit grammar, the renowned Astadhyayi (The Eight Chapters) which lays down the entire structure of Sanskrit grammar in roughly four thousand sutras (Coward 111). Although Panini’s contribution to the composition of the Sanskrit language is unsurpassed, the Astadhyayi is foremost a linguistic analysis, and Panini did not spend much time discussing the actual philosophy behind Sanskrit.

When we do examine the philosophy behind Sanskrit, we see that language was often related with the life-cycle of the universe, and there is no better example than that of the Hindus’ most sacred mantra, Aum. For Hindus, the entire creation and destruction of the universe can be represented by the utterance of this one monosyllable, and although it may be difficult for some people to immediately grasp this concept, the explanation for how it works is actually quite elegant. Aum is said to encompass all spoken language because the “A” syllable begins at the back of the mouth—where all language must begin—and then the whole word ends with a “fourth” syllable, silence (Prattis 83). If language is used as a metaphor for the universe, then Aum is that essential element that holds the cosmos together; when it stops, the universe will stop as well. Hindus identify Aum as “a primordial sound, inherent in the Universe” (Prattis 82) and “it denotes the super conscious state of Samadhi or Turiya” (Prattis 83).

This description of Aum as a cosmic concept is related to the sphota theory of language, which is spoken of extensively by another grammarian, Bhartrhari. Although Bhartrhari was not the grammarian who originally invented the sphota theory, he comments on it extensively in his work, the Vakyapadiya, which explains how sentences are meaningful to us despite differences in accent, speech tempo, and so forth. The sphota theory also states that individual words cannot have meaning when they are uttered on their own; it is only when they are ordered together into a coherent sentence that they take on meaning. Sentences are also unable to gain meaning without the active participation of both the speaker and the listener. Both individuals must understand the sentence in order for it to make sense, or the language merely becomes gibberish. When the sentence is thought of by the speaker and understood by the listener, they work as a single unit, and only then does meaning erupt from the words and enter the minds of both individuals (Coward 10-11). Where the mantra, Aum, is concerned, the meaning of the Ultimate Truth will supposedly issue from the sound of Aum while it is chanted. People seeking the Truth are both the speakers and listeners of this mantra, and they have only to grasp the meaning before they are able to fully understand the Ultimate Truth and achieve spiritual liberation.

Patanjali, another very famous Hindu grammarian, was careful to emphasize the fact that language is special; it is not some everyday commodity that can be created and destroyed at will, but rather an ever-changing means of communicating with one another. He had a famous notion, known today as “Patanjali’s Potters Principle,” which roughly states that “if you want pots, you go to a potter, but if you want words, you don’t go to a grammarian” (Staal 27). What he meant by this was that languages are more significant than regular, everyday commodities like pots. Words cannot just be made up on the spot by a grammarian like a pot can by a potter, but rather, new words come into being as a language evolves. Patanjali also made it clear that grammarians were not the creators of languages, but merely the analysers of it. It was not the grammarians who decided whether something in a language was “right” or “wrong” but the people who spoke that language instead. He said that if a man wanted to learn about how a language was put together, then he should see a grammarian, but if he wanted to learn a new language altogether, the only way would be to go to where that language was spoken and simply listen to it himself (Staal 27).

Language and speech has had a tremendous amount of influence on Hindu thought and philosophy. The amount of time, thought, and effort that Indians have put into creating and preserving their elegant Sanskrit is astounding to other cultures who have never viewed language as anything more than a simple means of communication. Hindus understand that this unique type of expression is not something to be taken for granted, and they revere language as something that can actually help them achieve that crucial goal they strive for throughout their lifetimes, knowledge of the Ultimate Truth of both the universe without, and the true Self within.


Coward, H.G. & K. Kunjunni Raja (1990) Encycolpedia of Indian Philosophies: The Philosophy of the Grammarians. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Prattis, J.I. (2002) “Mantra and consciousness expansion in India.” Journal of Ritual Studies. Vol. 16, no. 1, pp. 78-96.

Staal, Frits (1982) “Ritual, grammar, and the origins of science in India.” Journal of Indian Philosophy. Vol. 1, no. 0, pp. 3-36.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Sanskrit grammatical structure

Hindu grammarians




The Astadhyayi

The Mahabhyasa

The Vakyapadiya

The sphota theory of language


Meditation using mantras

Mantras used in rituals

Ancient languages

Noteworthy, Related Websites

Written by Jackie Hannaford (Spring 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.

The Rsis of Ancient Indian Tradition

Rsis are unique figures in Indian culture with a distinct status. Their role in Indian culture in both ancient and modern times is significant. Despite their importance to Indian tradition, the topic of the rsis has not been explored in the literature to as great an extent as many other topics within the study of Indian religious tradition. Much of the literature that exists lacks academic objectivity, which can lead to bias, limiting the usefulness of those sources. Even so, the amount of scriptural material dealing with rsis is overwhelming, as are the seemingly endless categories and classifications within the broad designation of rsi, and as a result this study will only briefly explore the legends and traditions of the rsis.

To satisfactorily define the rsis is a fairly daunting task in itself, given the wide variety of descriptions and scriptures associated with them. Mitchiner describes a rsi as “one who seeks to bring about change, a transformation both of himself and also of his environment” (246). This definition is broad, and by no means comprehensive. Some of the rsis’ means of implementing change must be described in order to understand Mitchiner’s definition. First, and perhaps foremost, the rsis are said to be composers of Vedic hymns, or rather, those to whom Vedic hymns are shown by means of divine revelation (Mitchiner 172). According to Mitchiner, rsis are said to have composed all ten books (mandalas) of the Rgveda and various Dharma Sastras (books of law and duty,) among other things (172-176). The rsis also performed the distinct (albeit closely related) role as teachers, passing on the knowledge revealed to them. While the Vedas emphasize rsis as seers, the Epics and Puranas emphasize rsis as teachers (182). Pandey (2-3) notes a distinction between categories of rsis, namely between saksatkritadharma (direct seers of hymns) and asaksatkritadharma (those who could not directly perceive divine truth.) Rsis of both categories, however, are said to have observed other important traditions as well.

The rsis’ position as seers of hymns is linked to their traditions of sacrifice, as many hymns are said to have been “seen” during the performance of sacrifice (Mitchiner 177). By offering sacrifice (yajna,) the main goal is said to have been “svarga-loka” (paradise) and ‘brahmaloka’ (eternal residence of the god Brahma)” (Pandey 158). It is by reaching such a realm that the foremost Seven Rsis are said to have become stars in the sky (Mitchiner 249). Other aims of sacrifice also included the acquisition of sons, wealth and cattle, but not all sacrifices performed by rsis were in pursuit of personal gain. Some literature tells of rsis performing sacrificial rituals for kings and their families, fulfilling the role of family priests (purohitas) (Mitchiner 178). Mitchiner points out that in most cases “men are urged to perform the same sacrifice in order to fulfill the same aim” (178), whether that aim is obtaining heaven or obtaining earthly goals (178-180).

Agastya, one of the legendary Seven Rsis, Cidambaram Temple Sculpture, Tamil Nadu
Agastya, one of the legendary Seven Rsis, Cidambaram Temple Sculpture, Tamil Nadu

Another rsi tradition was that of asceticism (tapas.) The word tapas is derived from the Sanskrit tap, basically meaning heat, and tapas has come to mean “the basic idea of inwardly heating oneself, through the performance of various religious and ascetic practices” (Mitchiner 187). In the Atharvaveda it is said that through the practise of severe austerities, one could acquire supernatural abilities (Pandey 187). These powers (siddhis) are said to have been wide ranging. Through severe practices of tapas, one could acquire the ability to fly, to fulfill one’s desires, and to escape old age and even death (Mitchiner 206). Siddhis were not the only goal of tapas, however. In the Vedas, immediate goals were often sought, such as wealth or victory over enemies, however the goals of tapas could also be more abstract, for example the “destruction of past sins and deeds (karma) (Mitchiner 201). Pandey (187-188) outlines several ascetic practices that rsis are said to have engaged in including: sitting “motionless like wood” (187) for extended periods, laying on various beds designed to cause pain and following strict diets. Rsis reportedly chose isolated locations (often called hermitages) to practice tapas in order to be “free from the disturbances and distractions of the world around” (Mitchiner 190). Hermitages were often located in forested or mountainous areas, especially in the Himalayas around the sources of the river Ganga, or in the pine forests of the southern slopes of the Himalayas, which remain a popular location for modern ascetics (190). Some rsis maintained hermitages and dwelled there for extensive periods, and became known as asramavasis or hermitage dwellers (Pandey, 5).

Another common method of practicing tapas is by abstaining from sexual activity, or more specifically by avoiding the spilling of semen. Rsis practicing total celibacy were referred to as urdhvaretas (having the seed drawn upward) and are held in high regard (Mitchiner 233). There are several tales in which the gods (or Indra, specifically,) seeing the power that the rsis acquired through tapas as a threat to their (or his) status or well being, sent beautiful water nymphs (asparas) to seduce them. Some tales tell of rsis succumbing to the temptation of the asparas, while others are said to have prevailed and subsequently used their supernatural abilities to curse the asparas (234-235). Interestingly, by some accounts all rsis are said to have married, which is seemingly at odds with their status as celibate ascetics. It has been said that only after Siva, the ideal ascetic, made clear his intention to marry Parvati, that the foremost Seven Rsis became unashamed of marriage (235-236). Marriage, or at least the performance of sexual intercourse, however, is essential to many accounts, which claim the rsis as the progenitors of all creation (Pandey 241, Mitchiner 248).

Having described the rsis without extensive breadth or detail, it is already clear that they occupy a large and enigmatic place in Indian scriptural history. They are legendary for their roles as seers and revealers, teachers, devout ascetics, celestial bodies, celibate urdhvaretas and (perhaps most interestingly) progenitors of all existence. They are difficult to define, largely because of their dynamic roles in Indian religion. However, it is their dynamic nature that has made them so integral to the scriptures in which they play such a broad role.


Mitchiner, John E. (1982) Traditions of the Seven Rsis. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Pandey, Chandra Bhanu (1987) Risis in Ancient India. Delhi: Sundeep Prakashan.

Related Readings

The following is a brief list of readings pertaining, at least in some aspects, to the material discussed in the work above. For more comprehensive research, one might be advised to look into various scriptural texts through which rsi tradition has been maintained. It is scriptural texts such as the Vedas, the Puranas, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana that provide the greatest wealth of knowledge on the legends and traditions associated with rsis.

Brent, Peter (1972) Godmen of India. New York: Quadrangle Books.

Doniger, Wendy (1993) Purana perennis. Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications.

MacDonell, Arthur Anthony (2004) History of Vedic Mythology. New Delhi: Sanjay Prakashan.

Oldenberg, Hermann (1988) The Religion of the Veda. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Sullivan, Bruce M. (1999) Seer of the Fifth Veda. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Related Topics

Presented here is a brief list of topics that one who is interested in rsi tradition might also enjoy researching:

Topics within the study of rsis:

  • The Seven Rsis
  • Brahmana lineages (gotras) claiming descent from rsis
  • Legendary Rsi authorship of scriptural texts

Topics related to the study of rsis:

  • Traditions and culture of gurus
  • Vedic sacrificial rituals and practices
  • Indian ascetic traditions
  • Puranic mythology

Related Websites

The websites provided in the following list pertain not to rsis specifically, but rather provide valuable resources on Hindu tradition in general. While not necessarily academically defensible, these pages provide a wealth of information for casual study and reference:

Written by Alex Masse (Spring 2006) who is solely responsible for its content

Ayurveda: The Ancient Hindu Science of Health and Medicine

Some time ago, around the fifth century AD, a Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Fa Hsien visited the city of Pataliputra. It was here, in this ancient northern Indian city, that he discovered an organized system of medical provisions that eventually became known as Ayurveda (Wujastyk 2). Ayurveda, which literally means “the knowledge of science for longevity” is said to have materialized at the beginning of time when life itself was created. It is therefore thought to have no concrete beginning and will thus continue until the end of creation (Sharma 719). Ayurveda is an all encompassing system of medical practices that includes both preventative and prescriptive measures, advice on exercise, diet, morality as well as specific medical teachings for the professional physician, focusing on aspects of diagnosis and therapy (Wujastyk 3). There are two Ayurvedic classics, the Carakasamhita and Susruta’s Compendium. Both of these texts describe diagnoses, pharmaceuticals, human body and treatment among other things, however, the Carakasamhita is the text in which the roots of Indian medicine originate (Wujastyk 31). These texts, as well as Ayurveda’s other teachings and doctrines, suggest that this could have been the world’s first organized medical system and have thus laid the foundation for the medical procedures that are practiced today.

Ayurveda’s exact roots are difficult to trace as its practices go back to prehistory around the time when people started to become conscious of their health and became aware that they had to take measures to improve and preserve their lives (Sharma 719). While it is hard to set a concrete time when actual Ayurvedic practices came about, by the time of the Indus Valley Civilization, Ayurveda was well developed and the attitude of people towards health practices was advanced (Sharma 719). The ancient cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro were intricately planned to include drainage systems, public wells and waste removal structures indicating their appreciation of proper sanitation (Sharma 720). Excavations of these cities found stag-horn and cuttlefish bone suggesting that vegetables, animals and minerals were used as sources for drugs (Sharma 720).The ash of Stag-horn and the cuttlefish bone were useful in treating cardiac pain, respiratory disorders and diseases of the ear and, interestingly, many of these ancient remedies are still used today (Sharma 720). In addition to the use of certain drugs, Indus peoples placed great emphasis on personal hygiene and cosmetics use including the use of collyrium for preventing and curing eye diseases (Wujastyk 184). With their intricate techniques and insightful knowledge into therapeutics, the Indus Valley Civilization played a vital role in the development of Ayurveda. Today, Ayurveda is a living system of medicine in India. In 1970, the Indian Parliament set up a Central Council for Ayurveda recognizing its integral role in Indian Medicine (Wujastyk 9). This counsel provides accredited colleges, standardized qualifications and professional training in Ayurveda. By 1983, there were approximately 100 accredited Ayurvedic training colleges in India (Wujastyk 9). It is clear that the ancient practice of Ayurveda continues to prevail in the medicinal practices of today. The treatments, practices and therapies of Ayurveda revolve around a central concept: the body. The pancha-bhuta theory asserts living creatures are formed from the five forms of matter: earth, fire, wind, water and akasa and therefore the body is in a perpetual state of flux just as nature is (Kakar, 231). The central process of the body is digestion and is seen as “cooking” and known as “fire in the belly” (Kakar 232). When food enters the belly it is cooked by the digestive fire and turns into the first of several body tissues quickly becoming flesh and eventually reaching the highest bodily essence: semen (Wujastyk 5). Networks of tubes carry the fluids of the body from place to place, and interestingly, blockage of these tubes is vital in Ayurveda’s explanation of insanity (Wujastyk 6).

In keeping the bodily elements in balance, the consumption of environmental matter in the right form, proportion and combination must be taken into consideration (Kakar 231). Therefore, diet is essential to Ayurveda emphasizing that any food used for medicinal purposes should be avoided to maintain physical well being (Kakar 231). A pure, bland diet is recommended, emphasizing Ayurveda’s belief in the mutual relationship between food and the “mind” (Kakar 269). Different foods are believed to have different qualities that each affected the body in a variety of ways. It was believed that sour foods increased promiscuity while red chilies and pepper activated a person’s urge to dominate others; even water at different temperatures had diverse effects (Govindan 23). Certain types of mind prefer certain types of food and therefore, one of the first questions that a physician asked their patient pertained to what foods the individual had consumed (Kakar 269).

The Carakasamhita, or “Caraka’s Compendium,” is the text in which classical Indian medicine really begins and the text that sheds the light on real medical practices (Wujastyk 39). The present-day Carakasamhita, the oldest Samhita of Ayurveda available today, was not the work of a single author but has three distinct authors: Atreya-Agnivesa in the pre-Buddhist period (1000BC), Caraka in the post-Buddhist period (2-3rd century BC) and Drdhabala in the classical period (4-5th century AD) (Sharma 728). The compendium consists of 120 chapters divided into eight parts: Sutra – on pharmacology, food, diet, etc.; Nidana – on causes of eight diseases; Vimana – topics such as taste and nourishment; Sarira – on philosophy, anatomy and embryology; Indriya – on diagnosis and prognosis; Cikitsa – on therapy; Kalpa – on pharmacy and Siddhi – on further general therapy (Wujastyk 41). Included in the Vimana section is a chapter on epidemics. Mosquitoes, rats, earthquakes and bad water are all recognized as possible causes of epidemics highlighting the exceptional thinking of these people in recognizing disease vectors and carriers. In addition, the chapter reflects on the classification of diseased patients into three categories: those who can be cured, those who cannot be cured but can be improved and those who are incurable (Wujastyk 49). The Carakasamhita recommends that physicians do not get involved with patients of the incurable type. Natural urges are highlighted in another chapter of the Carakasamhita. This chapter emphasizes the urges which should be suppressed and those that should not (Wujastyk 53). It was stated that a wise man was not to suppress the urges of urine or feces, sneezing, yawning or the urging of hunger and thirst. However, the urges of fury, pride, envy and excessive passion should be suppressed (Wujastyk 54). The Carakasamhita highlights many vital aspects of Ayurveda and plays an important role in the interpretation of Ayurvedic theory.

Similar to Caraka’s Compendium, Susruta’s Compendium also consists of sections relating to Ayurvedic practices (Larson 108). One section, Nidana, highlights surgery. While Caraka goes into brief descriptions, Susruta goes into great detail about all aspects of surgery (Wujastyk 106). It emphasizes that a good surgeon will be one who has witnessed operations and developed practical experience. He should be clean, keep his nails and hair short and dress in a white garment (Wujastyk 130). Knives, integral parts of surgeon’s equipment, are also discussed and include: types, sizes, proper handling and sharpening techniques (Wujastyk 124). Also included is how a surgeon must be able to diagnose the ailments by either the five senses or interrogation and, after this, how he is to treat the problem through various surgical techniques included in the Compendium (Wujastyk 131).

In addition to surgery, some of the most fundamental components of Ayurveda treatments are the use of drugs. Physicians had to be well acquainted with the identification of drugs as well as their properties and actions (Sharma 722). Drugs were used by external application, internal administration and, as well, the use of natural remedies such as sun-rays, fire, water and air were recognized as having important therapeutic qualities (Sharma 722). Essential components of drugs were plants as they were often a main source of which drugs came from. The osadhi-sukta of the Rg Veda is a document on the knowledge about plants in that age with soma being recognized as the king of herbs (Sharma 724). Some of the plants were cultivated while others grew in the wild (Sharma 724). Sometimes, herbs were combined for medicinal purposes and since a physician was to have complete knowledge of the plants, when administered, desired results were often observed (Sharma 724).

Ayurveda encompasses many different aspects of Indian medicine and is widely regarded as the world’s first organized medical system (Wujastyk 5). Both the Carakasamhita and the Susrutasutra are integral in the interpretation of Ayurvedic theory and provide insight into the forward thinking of the people of this time (Larson 108). They also provided a trustworthy reference for teachings in Ayurveda which furthered the development of the medical system and preservation of both the mind and body (Wujastyk 31). As well, they formed a basis in which many therapies originate today. While the body, drugs, surgeons and classics have all been discussed, Ayurveda includes many more essential components that have not been included here. However, all of Ayurveda’s components are equally important; these are just the ones I have chosen to highlight. With its intricate techniques, exceptional treatments and brilliant procedures, Ayurveda has undoubtedly played an enormous role in ancient medical practices as well as in laying the foundation for the medical practices seen today.

References and Further Recommended Readings

Gaur, Banwari and Santosh Sharma, eds. (2000) Researches in Ayurveda Past and Present. Jaipur: Publication Scheme.

Govindan, S.V. (2003) Fundamental Maxims of Ayurveda. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.

Kakar, Suhir (1982) Shamans, Mystics and Doctors. New York: Random House.

Kumar, Deepak ed. (2001) Disease and Medicine in India. New Delhi: Tulika Books.

Larson, Gerald “Ayurveda and the Hindu philosophical systems” (1993) Self as Body in Asian Theory and Practice. Ed. Thomas P. Kasulis. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Selvester, Joseph (1997) Ayurveda: 5000-Year Old Medical Science for the Next Millenium. Total Health. 19(5), 56.

Sharma, P.V. “Development of Ayurveda from Antiquity to AD 300” (1999) The Dawn of Indian Civilization (up to c. 600 BC). Ed. G.C. Pande. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.

Wujastyk, Dominik (1998) The Roots Of Ayurveda. New Delhi: Penguin Books.

Related topics for Further Investigation

Fa Hsien
Central Council for Ayurveda
Pancha-bhuta theory

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic ayurvedic_cures/index.shtml

Article written by: Carlie Boras (March 2006) who is solely responsible for content

Related Readings (The Upanisads)

Chakravarti, S. C. (1935) The Philosophy of the Upanisads. Calcutta: University of Calcutta.

Deussen, Paul (1906)The Philosophy of the Upanishads. Reprint. New York: Dover, 1966.

Hume, R. (trans.) (1921) The Thirteen Principal Upanisads. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Keith, A. B. (1925) The Religion and Philosophy of the Veda and Upanisads. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Nikhilananda, Swami (1949-59) The Upanishads, 4 vols. New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center.

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

Radhakrishnam, S. (1967) The Principal Upanisads. London: Allen & Unwin.

Soma: Mysterious Vedic Plant and Deity

In the realm of Hinduism, Soma can be recognized as, and is considered to be, a god (deva), a magical and hallucinogenic plant, and the juice of that plant. Soma is extraordinary in that it is recognized as one of only a few plants humans have ever deified (see Wasson 3). There are a large variety of other sacred plants (even within India), but none of which have had quite the impact, influence, and controversy that Soma has. Soma is directly related to the RgVeda and plays an important part in understanding the text. This is because 120 of its thousand or so hymns are entirely devoted to the plant-god Soma. I shall separately discuss Soma as a god (deva) first and then Soma as a plant, placing more emphasis on the latter.

The Vedic god Soma, in the Rg Veda, was considered to be the king of plants, and the bestower of immortality (amrita) (Basham 14). Turner and Coulter (2000) describe Soma thus: “The deity Soma is a moon god, a god of the flowing waters, a god of inspiration, ecstasy and inspiration” (Turner & Coulter 438). Soma was originally known as the god of ecstasy, with his nectar, amrita, being the food of the gods (Jansen 67). Soma, as a god, is believed to be the personification of Soma juice. There are a few myths that surround the origins of Soma as a god. One of the most popular indicates that Soma is a form of Indra (lord of the thunderbolt), and that it was Indra who first discovered Soma. Another popular myth claims that the goddess Sarasvati (She who is Full of Juice) found Soma in the Himalayas and then brought Soma to share with the other deities (Turner & Coulter 436). Soma is said to have given Indra, through its highly intoxicating serum, supreme powers that he used against his enemies, which eventually uplifted him to the highest status among Vedic devas. The common lineage account for Soma is that he was the son of either Dharma (deity who embodies righteousness) or Varuna (god of the oceans). Soma is sometimes said to be married to Surya (the sun-god) to whom he holds a strong bond (Ions 77).

Scholars surmise that Soma was a form of a plant that was naturally produced high in the mountains of India that, after extracting and consuming the juices, was thought to be hallucinogenic and empowering, invoking a surrealistic religious experience. Soma was not only contained to India. For instance, Soma appears to be very similar, if not the same, as hoama, which was consumed by the Zoroastrians, in what is modern-day Iran, around the same time Soma was popular in India (approximately 3250 years ago). The Zoroastrians, like the Hindus, also discussed the rituals that used the sacred plant hoama in their sacred scripture known as the Avesta. The Avesta is thought of as the Zoroastrian version of the Hindu RgVeda (Basham 14).

Many possibilities have been put forth in the attempt to identify Soma, some of them being ephedra, rhubarb, chicory, and hashish or cannabis sativa. One of the most accepted theories of Soma is that espoused by R. Gordon Wasson. Wasson proposed that Soma was, in fact, not a plant but a wild mushroom known as Amanita muscaria or the fly-agaric. This was the first time that a mushroom had been identified as Soma. In 1968, Wasson published his book entitled Soma: the Divine Mushroom of Immortality. The main hypotheses of Wasson is explained as: “In a word, my belief is that Soma is the Divine Mushroom of Immortality, and that in the early days of our culture, before we made use of reading and writing, when the RgVeda was being composed, the prestige of this miraculous mushroom ran by word of mouth far and wide throughout Eurasia, well beyond the regions where it grew and was worshipped” (Wasson 9). Using the RgVeda as his primary source, Wasson was able to decipher what he thought to be the identity of Soma. Wasson believed that the other theories for Soma did not reflect the clues hidden in the RgVeda and were therefore not relevant to the identity of Soma. Wasson also believed that the origins of Soma could be traced as far back as the “Sacred Element” in shamanic rites of many northern Siberian tribes (Wasson 10). The fly-agaric, as Wasson attested, is an inebriant in two forms:

1. Taken directly in the form of raw mushroom, juice, or mixed with another substance such as water, milk, curds, or honey.
2. Taken through the urine of a person who has ingested the fly-agaric.

It is only in these two forms that Soma could be ingested or consumed (Wasson 25). Wasson’s argument has gained much popularity because of its reference to historical, scientific, and religious means to solve the mystery of Soma.

In the form of an entheogenic plant or similar substance, Soma was used, primarily, if not always, by Brahmin priests as a state-altering substance that allowed themselves to be intimately connected with the gods during Vedic rituals. This connection was regarded as being the conduct through which one could possibly see a god (deva) in an earthly light through an incarnation made possible by the priests’ consumption of Soma (see Williams 110-111). Soma, therefore, offered sustenance and energy to the devas and ecstasy to the Brahmins. Williams clearly explains the importance of the Brahmin priests and Soma during rituals: “As the Soma experience of seeing and hearing the devas began to be referred to in ancient hymns, the magical formulas of the prayers (mantras) and the science of control of the universe through the Vedic sacrifices placed the priests (Brahmin) at the center of the Vedic worldview” (Williams 271). Through this view, Brahmin priests and Soma were equated as being the center of all Vedic religious experience.

As mentioned above, Soma played an extremely important role in Vedic rituals. Some of the most famous rituals are the consecration of the king (rajasuya), the “drink of power” ritual (vajapeya), and various fire rituals (agnistoma). Soma has also been compared to and equated with many Vedic deities. For example, the Vedic deity Indra (lord of the thunderbolt) was the most popular of the Vedic deities and was known to be the ultimate consumer of large amounts of Soma (Fowler 100). Many poets of the RgVeda compare Soma directly with Surya (sun-god) and his mythological horses, hari. Also, Soma has an intimately close connection with Agni (fire-god) because of the equality that is drawn between its inebriating qualities and the subtlety of flames, respectively (Wasson 39). Both Soma and Agni were the major sacrifices described in the RgVeda; therefore, they were both distinctly connected in their roles regarding communication with the other Vedic deities. Through the close connection and comparison between itself and devas, Soma had a very influential role in developing and sustaining the Vedic tradition.


Basham, A.L. (1989) The Origins and Development of Classical Hinduism. Boston: Beacon Press.

Ions, Veronica (1984) Library of the Worlds Myths and Legends: Indian Mythology. New York: Peter Bedrick Books.

O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger (1976) The Origins of Hindu Mythology. Berkeley: University of California Press.

________ (1980) Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stutley, Margaret (1989) Hinduism: The Eternal Law. Northampton, England: Aquarian Press.

Turner, Patricia, and Charles Russell Coulter (2000) Dictionary of Ancient Deities. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wasson, R. Gordon (1968) Soma, The Divine Mushroom of Immortality. Ethno-Mycological Studies 1. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.

Williams, George M. (2003) Handbook of Hindu Mythology. Santa Barbara: ABC: CLIO.

Zaehner, R.C. (1966) Hinduism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Related Readings

Kalyanaraman, Srinivasan (2004) Indian Alchemy: Soma in the Veda. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.

Knipe, David (1991) Hinduism: Experiments in the Sacred. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.

Patton, Laurie L. (2005) Bringing the Gods to Mind: Mantra and Ritual in Early Indian Sacrifice. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sivaraman, Krishna (1989) Hindu Spirituality: Vedas through Vedanta. New York: Crossroad.

Spess, David L. (2004) Soma: The Divine Hallucinogen. Rochester, Vermont: Park Street Press

Staal, J. F. (2001) “How a psychoactive substance becomes a ritual: the case of Soma.” Social Research, Fall.

Chakraborty, Uma (1997) Indra and Other Vedic Deities: A Euhemeristic Study. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld.

Wasson, R. Gordon. “The Soma of the Rig Veda: What Was It?” Journal of the American Oriental Society 91, no. 2 (1971): 169-91.

Related Research Topics

RgVeda, Vedic rituals, Brahmin priests, mantra, immortality (amrita), Indra, Sarasvati, Dharma, Varuna, Agni, agnistoma, vajapeya, rajasuya, hari, Zoroastrian, hoama, Avesta, Amanita muscaria.
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Article written by Jamie Lalonde (Spring 2006) who is solely responsible for its content.