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.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READINGS
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.
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Article written by Matthew Pawlak (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.