Vedas and Upaniṣads

by Michael Witzel

Veda means “(sacred) knowledge” (cf. Greek (w)oida, English wit, witness, German wissen). The Four Vedas are the oldest extant texts of India and contain religious and ritual poetry, ritual formulas and the explanatory prose that interprets these very texts, and additionally, in the late Vedic Upaniṣads, some early philosophy.

According to post-Vedic, medieval Indian tradition, the Four Vedas are called Śruti, that is “something (revealed to and) heard” by the “primordial” sages (R.s.i). By contrast, the concept of Smṛti “something learnt by heart” is restricted to the post-Upaniṣadic texts, such as the Sūtras (see below) or Manu’s law book, all of which are believed to have been composed by human beings. However, it is known from internal evidence that the Vedic texts were orally composed in northern India, at first in the Greater Punjab and later on also in more eastern areas, including northern Bihar, between ca. 1500 bce and ca. 500–400 bce.

The oldest text, the ṚgVeda, must have been more or less contemporary with the Mitanni texts of northern Syria/Iraq (1450–1350 bce); these mention certain Vedic gods (Varuṇa, Mitra, Indra, Nāsatya) and some forms of early Sanskrit that slightly predate the ṚgVeda (mazdā for Veḍ medhā, vasˇana for Veḍvāhana, etc.). However, there still is no absolute dating of any Ved. text. Pertinent parameters include the first use of iron (in a post-Ṛgvedic text, the Atharvaveda, at ca. 1200/1000 bce) and the lifetime of the Buddha (at 500 or perhaps rather 400 bce) who postdates almost all Vedic texts. However, all Vedic texts predate the grammatical commentary of Patañjali (ca. 150 bce) and his predecessor Pāṇini, who quote most of them.

The Vedic texts were orally composed and transmitted, without the use of script, in an unbroken line of transmission from teacher to student that was formalized early on. This ensured an impeccable textual transmission superior to the classical texts of other cultures; it is, in fact, something like a tape-recording of ca. 1500–500 bce. Not just the actual words, but even the long-lost musical (tonal) accent (as in old Greek or in Japanese) has been preserved up to the present.

On the other hand, the Vedas have been written down only during the early second millennium ce, while some sections such as a collection of the were perhaps written down at the middle of the first millennium, while some early, unsuccessful attempts (indicated by certain Smṛti rules forbidding to write down the Vedas) may have been made around the end of the first millennium bce. However, almost all printed editions depend on the late manuscripts that are hardly older than 500 years, not on the still extant and superior oral tradition.

Correct recitation of many texts indeed continues in certain traditional areas, such as Kerala, southern Tamil Nadu, coastal Andhra, Orissa, Kathiawar, at Poona or Benares. In the past few decades there have been attempts by local and foreign scholars to preserve, or at least to record, the oral tradition. However, no complete recording on tape or video of all Vedic recensions (śākhā) exists so far, and some texts have been lost even during the past few decades.

According to Indian tradition, the Vedas are divided into four parts (Ṛg-, Sāma-, Yajur-, and Atharva-Veda). This division corresponds to that of the material as used in the post-Ṛgvedic ritual (see below); each Veda again is subdivided into four levels: the Sam.hitā “(Mantra) collections,” Brāhmaṇa “(theological/ ritual) commentary,” Āraṇyaka “wilderness texts,” and Upaniṣad “(secret philosophical) texts (of correlations and equivalences learned) sitting at the feet (of the teacher).” One has to add the ritual Sūtra, which are regarded as belonging to the Smṛti but are late Vedic in content and language.

These traditional divisions into four kinds of texts, however, actually represent five historical layers (see the Appendix at the end of this chapter, also for abbreviations of texts), as indicated by the development of the Vedic language used: that of Ṛgvedic, of the Mantras, of Yajurveda expository prose, of the Brāhmaṇ as (incl. Āraṇyakas, Upaniṣads) and of the Sūtras. These five layers only partially overlap with the traditional divisions.

The ṚgVeda

The oldest Vedic text, the ṚgVeda (RV), is composed in archaic, highly stylized poetical Sanskrit. It contains verses of praise addressed to the Vedic gods and to some early contemporary chieftains; it also includes some speculative hymns and some (probably) nonritual poetry. Most of the hymns, however, were intended to be recited at the yearly Soma ritual, celebrated at the time of New Year.

The RV contains 1,028 hymns arranged in ten books, actually ten “circles” (maṇd.ala). Book 9 is a separate, fairly late collection containing the texts of Sāman hymns to be sung during the Soma ritual. Book 10 and part of book 1 are even later additions. The RV has been transmitted in one recension (the śākhā of Śākalya) while others (such as the Bāṣkala text) have been lost or are only rumored about so far.

The RV text was composed before the introduction and massive use of iron, that is before ca. 1200–1000 bce. Internal evidence indicates that most hymns were composed over a span of just five generations, under the Pūru and Bharata chieftains, notably the great Bharata king Sudās; they represent the middle ṚgVeda period, with such prominent poets as Viśvāmitra and the East Iranian(?) immigrant Vasiṣṭha. A few older hymns apparently come from other tribes, such as the Anu-Druhyu and Yadu-Turvaśa.

They were composed by members of various clans of poets (among which 7 major ones, RV 2–8). The hymns that belonged to them were transmitted as “private property” which often was “copyrighted” by including the names of the individual poets or clans or by typical refrains. Most of the poets belonged to, or were later attributed to, the Aṇgirasa clans and also the Kāṇva. The names attributed to the authors of Ṛgvedic hymns seem to be partially correct, when corroborated by self-reference or indirectly by certain poetic devices; however, many of the names recorded in the clearly post-Ṛgvedic Anukramaṇī (“list” of poets, deities, meters) are artificially derived from some key words in the hymns; these names often do not correspond to those given by the Sāmavedic, Yajurvedic, and Atharvavedic traditions.

Poetic Speech

The most characteristic feature of all Ṛgvedic poetry is the power and prestige of speech (vāc) and verbal behavior in general, without which the RV itself would not exist. The gods (but also the human listeners, especially the sponsors of the ritual) were most pleased by “the newest hymn,” composed with poetic craftsmanship and virtuosity – to which they were entitled as ritual guests; the better the hymn, the greater the reward – to the poet from the patron, to the patron from the god.

Most prized, however, is the putting into words of the much celebrated R.ta (= Avestan asˇa) active realization of truth” or Wahrheitsverwirklichung (cf.Lüders 1944, 1951, 1959 “Truth”), is commonly still translated “cosmic order”or “cosmic harmony.” The vital force of R.ta indeed has the power to keep thecosmos and human society functioning correctly. This untranslatable conceptthus is similar to the later Hindu dharma. The opposite concept of druh- (Avesṭdruj) “deceiving, cheating action, (Be)-Trug” (cf. Engl. be-tray) signifies active untruth. Another contrast to R.ta seems to be nir-ti, the absolute disappearance(nir-) of “active, creative truth, law, order,” that is absolute destruction, a sort ofhell of absolute darkness, with no food, drink, possibility of children, etc. (RV7.104).

Capturing R. ta in words is effected by bráhman, the “formulation” or capturing in words of a significant and non-self-evident truth (Thieme 1952, cf. Renou and Silburn 1949, Gonda 1950, Schmidt 1968a). The formulator (brahmán-) of such truths has special powers, effecting this world and the cosmos. The same power of correctly stated truth is found in the (later) *satyakriyā or “act of truth” (Brown 1940, 1968, Lüders 1917, 1944) which has counterparts in other Indo- European (Watkins 1979) and Eurasian cultures (Witzel forthc.). Such formulated speech must be recited correctly, otherwise there is danger of losing one’s head (as in the indraśatru legend TS, ŚB The original author, always a Vedic R.s.i, is a brahmán- “possessor of bráhman-” whose name is remembered and must be uttered to this day.

Contents of the ṚgVeda

Apart from the predominantly ritual contents of the ṚgVeda there are a few hymns of highly poetical value and of early philosophical speculation. Some of these hymns, such as the famous love story of Purū ravas and Urvaśī (RV 10.95), have been used by the later Epic and classical poets. All of Ṛgvedic poetry is verycomplicated and enigmatic: it is based on the poetical norms of the precedingIndo-Iranian and Indo-European periods, it refers to many fragmentarily known myths, uses many archaic formulas and set phrases, and a vocabulary that was already archaic then, and its expression in general is very elliptical.

There also are stanzas that praise the local chieftains, who where sponsors of Ṛgvedic ritual. The area of the Greater Panjab was inhabited by some 30 to 50 tribes and clans in whose service the transient RV poets composed ever “new hymns” in praise of the gods and chieftains.

A number of hymns are in dialogue form; these have hardly been used in later ritual; however, they belong to the most beautiful and poetical pieces of the RV. The hymns dealing with early philosophical speculation have usually been understood as presenting contemporary developments, but many of the topics, such as that of the primordial giant (Purua), go back to Indo-European (i.e. the Old Norse Ymir) and even to a preceding Eurasian period (i.e. the Chinese/Miao Pangu). After the end of the ṚgVeda, this kind of speculative poetry was continued in the AV (Śaunaka AV books 8–12) which still were composed by the brahmán, now turned priests, and later, in the Yajurvedic Gāthās and Ślokas, down to the Upaniṣad period.

Ṛgvedic Mythology

Underlying the praise of the gods is a complicated system of mythology that is not stated as such by the text, but must be extracted laboriously, just like all other information about this period. Much of it goes back to the common Indo-Iranian and Indo-European periods.

Many of the deities are transparently “natural” though they have acquired a certain amount of “personality,” while others, developed during the Indo- Iranian period, are deified abstractions that belong to the ethical (Varuṇa, Mitra, Aryaman, Bhaga, etc.) and conceptual sphere (R.ta) as well as to ritual practice (Soma). However, as Kuiper (1962: 43) has pointed out, “understanding a single mythological figure isolated from the context of the mythological system” is difficult, and a more structured arrangement of (semi-)divine beings and their functions in their relevant spheres should be undertaken. They include the heavenly sphere with the deities and their ancestors, other heavenly beings such as the Gandharvas, the R.s. is, human ancestors (pitr. ); further the mundane sphere with human beings and certain spirits, and the nether world with beings such as the Nāga, and finally, various demonic beings such as, kim īdin, and the force of destruction, Nirṛti, all of whom are governed by the universal force of “active truth” (R.ta) and its counterpart “deceit, cheating” (Druh). These beings and entities are set in juxtaposition or opposition on the various levels of the universe. For example, the promiscuous, extra-societal group of Veda students “on leave,” the Vrātyas here on earth, have their counterparts in heaven (daivya vrātya, Gandharva, Vasilkov 1991), as well as in the netherworld (Nāgas).

The most important (R.g)Vedic gods include the following. Agni is deified (ritual) “Fire,” one of the few gods that are actually present and visible on the offering ground. He receives and transports offerings to the gods.

Indra, originally called Vṛtrahan “beating the resistance” (AvesṭVRreJragna, Benveniste and Renou 1934) is the leader of the present generation of the gods and a major actor in the early stages of creation: he pushes up the sky, and prepares the oikumene by opening the Vala cave of the Dawns (Schmidt 1968a), by killing the Dragon Vṛtra, and by stealing the Soma (Brown 1968; Lüders 1951: 183ff.; Kuiper 1983; also: Sieg 1926, Schneider 1971, Dandekar 1979). Indra also is the archetypal tricky, voracious, and oversexed leader of the Ā rya in the frequent battles among themselves and with the non-Ā rya population of the Greater Panjab (E. W. Hopkins 1908, Rau 1957, Dandekar 1997). Many of his characteristics go back to IE (Watkins 1995) and even to the preceding Eurasian mythology. The Maruts, a sort of Männerbund, are often associated with Indra. Soma “the one pressed out,” is the deified drink, as well as the plant from which it is derived (also called by the Central Asian substrate name am˘.śu). Without drinking Soma, Indra could not kill Vṛtra (Oberlies 1989, 1991, 1998).

The Ādityas, “the sons of Aditi” are a group of 7/8 (later 12) divinities that were at first interpreted as nature gods (Bergaigne 1878–83, III: 110ff., Keith 1925, 96–104, Hillebrandt (1927–9: 2ff., 41ff.). However, they are personifications of the most important social functions (Meillet 1907, Thieme 1938, 1957a, Dumézil 1934, 1958b, Gonda 1972): Varuṇa is a stern but just kingfigure,

of unclear etymology (Lüders 1951/1959, Thieme 1957a, Kuiper 1983); Mitra, Varuṇa’s constant partner, is a personification of tribal agreements (mitra,ntṛ “agreement”) (Meillet 1907, Brereton 1981); and Aryaman “Arya-hood, hospitality” that of clan relationship and marriage. Further, the popular Bhaga “Luck” (bhaga “share”), is god of good luck, and similarly Am.śa “lot” (am. śa“lot”). The Aśvins (Nāsatya) are divine twins who perform miraculous cures and rescues., “Dawn,” is the most prominent goddess, and the often-praised friend of poets. Other deified natural phenomena, who can be traced back to the Indo- European and even to earlier Eurasian periods, include Sūrya “the male belonging to the sun”; Dyaus “Heaven, Sky” (or Dyaus Pitar “Father Sky”) and his consort, Pṛithiv ī (Mātā) (Mother) “Earth,” the Āpas “(flowing) Waters,” often called “divine ladies” (Narten 1971); Vāyu or Vāta “Wind,” and Parjanya “Thunder.” As elsewhere, fire is regarded as masculine and water as a feminine deity, while the “elements” fire and water exist separately as archaic neuters (athar-/*peh2ur-, udr-/udn-) – a very old, Indo-European and perhaps pan- Eurasian notion (Witzel 1992). Many rites and customs (offering meat balls to the three closest male ancestors, marriage, fire ritual, horse sacrifice, etc.) are of Indo-European age as well.

Similarly, the notion of an opposition between groups of gods (Deva and Asura), which is later expressed by “The Devas and the Asuras were in contention” (Br. style texts), goes back to the Indo-Iranian and even the IE periods. In the RV, however, asura is often used as epithet of the most respected Devas, e.g. Varuṇa and Agni, and in early Iranian religion ahura signifies the most prominent god, Ahura Mazdā “Lord Wisdom.” This difference is one of “the central problems of Vedic religion” (Kuiper 1975: 112, W. E. Hale 1986). It seems (with Kuiper) that the Asuras were the primordial gods, challenged and defeated by the upstart Devas, similar to that of the Titans by the Olympian gods.

The constant contest between the Devas and the Asuras has its mundane counterpart in the Ṛgvedic opposition between the immigrating Ārya and their acculturated affiliates on the one hand, and the previous local inhabitants, the Dasyu or Dāsa on the other; this opposition is replaced in post-RV texts by that of the Ārya and Śūdra. It is expressed most notably in the New Year ritual (Mahāvrata rite), when the old order breaks down temporarily and carnival-like chaos reigns among the gods and in society. Vedic ritual enforces the social role of deva/asura and ārya/śūdra precisely at such occasions.

Prajāpati (“Lord of creatures”) is a very marginal figure in the late RV, but becomes in the Post-RV prose texts the central creator god embodying the power of the ritual (Gonda 1984, 1986, 1989).

The great Hindu gods Vis.ṇu and Śiva are not yet prominent in Vedic. Vis.ṇu appears almost only in his role as taking three steps towards heaven and Śiva as a frightening god under his names “Rudra,” ghora “terrible,” or simply as asaudevam “that god.” The name Śiva “the kindly/auspicious one” occurs only in the late VedKaṭha Āraṇyaka. The process leading to their later prominence is rather controversial. Kuiper (1962) sees Vis.ṇu as a central mediating figure between the older Asuras and the younger Devas.

Ṛgvedic Ritual

The important relation between myth and ritual is very evident in the Vedic tradition: Agni and Soma are ritual objects and divinities with a developed personal mythology; mythic episodes are recited in liturgical context. Later on, in the vedas and upaniṣads 73Brāhmaṇa style texts, mythology explains (details of) and refers to ritual activity in mythological narratives. A deep connection was felt by the composers of the texts (K. Hoffmann 1975/6: 516–22, 422–38, Sieg 1902, Schmidt 1968a, Falk 1984, Heesterman 1985, Jamison 1991, Witzel 1986b, 1992, 1998).

Indeed, most of the Ṛgvedic hymns relate to early Vedic ritual. Though the RV does not contain any direct description, various allusions and mentioning of its features in this highly poetical text can be used to establish a fairly consistent description (for its interpretation, see below). However, relatively little systematic work had been done on assembling the details of Ṛgvedic praxis (but, now Proferes 1999, Schmidt 1973, Witzel 1981/2). Except for a brief discussion of the RV Soma ritual (Geldner 1951), scholars had taken the clear descriptions of the Śrauta ritual as their starting points (van Buitenen 1968: Pravargya; Gonda 1980b: Sautrāmaṇī; Hillebrandt 1897: 11–17, Keith 1925: 252–6). However, Schmidt (1973) shows that the sacrificial animal was tied to the offering pole and decapitated, while in the “classical” ritual the animal was still tied to the pole but then suffocated outside the sacrificial ground. Similar developments, also in the assembly of the texts to be recited, are shown by Proferes (1999).

The most important RV ritual is that of the preparation, offering, and consumption of the sacred drink, Soma, dealt with at length in RV 9. It was prepared from an unknown plant (probably Ephedra) growing in the high mountains of the Pamirs (Mt. Muzh, Mūjavant), eastern Iran, and the western Himalayas. This plant was soon substituted as the Ṛgvedic civilization expanded eastwards into the Indus and Gangetic plains. Soma seems to be a substitute for the earlier Indo-European sacred drink, made from fermented honey (mead). It most probably was taken over, by both the Indo-Aryans and the Iranians, from the local population of the Bactria/Margiana area who seem to have called it by the non-Indo-Iranian word am˘śu. Its antiquity is indeed underlined by the Zoroastrian tradition, where it appears as the important haoma ritual.

Other important rituals include the kindling and worship of fire which must be present in all rituals. It is identified with the fire in the sun, as can be seen most clearly in the post-Ṛgvedic Agnihotra ritual and also in the oldest Zoroastrian ritual (Yasna HaptaNhāiti). Many such features, including some of the names of various (usually seven) priests, such as that of the Hotar (ZaraJusˇtra himself was a Zaotar), go back to the Indo-Iranian period. Other rituals, such as the Indo-European horse sacrifice (Puhvel 1987) or some equally old domestic rites of passage (death and marriage), are only sparsely attested in the RV.

Several of the Ṛgvedic rituals, just as some of its Śrauta successors, are concerned with the liminal periods in the yearly progression of time (daily, fortnightly, seasonal, and yearly); they are the “rites of passage” of the year. Kuiper stresses that “the oldest nucleus of the ṚgVeda was a textbook for the new year ritual” (1960: 222); Schmidt (1968a) connects the morning pressing of the Soma ritual with the Vala myth and with the New Year/spring season and suggests a connection of the midday pressing with the Vr.tra myth and the rainy reason; H. Falk additionally underlines the spring time “coming of the waters” in an Arachosian context (1997).

Ṛgvedic ritual evolved further during the middle and late Ṛgvedic period (Proferes 1999), especially under the influence of the Viśvāmitra clan, and was rather artificially elaborated, systematized, and codified; it emerged, by the time of the early post-Ṛgvedic/early Mantra period collections (Witzel 1997a,b), as the famous “classical Śrauta ritual” that is prominent in all post-RV texts and still is performed in some traditional areas of India and Nepal.

Collecting and Ordering the Early Vedic Texts

Accordingly, the first collection of (most) available RV hymns dealing with ritual was made under the Bharata dynasty of the early Kuru kings, such as the famous; he is first attested in the early post-RV Khila collection (5.22) and later on is a prominent figure in the Mahābhārata. His time, one of great political, societal, religious, and linguistic change (Witzel 1989a, 1997a) is praised as a golden age, among other with the telling refrain (RVKh 5.22): “the people thrive in the realm of King” The break-up of the old tribal society of the ṚgVeda and the rise of the intertribal Kuru realm (Witzel 1997a,b) thus saw strikingly new developments in ritual and in the development of Brahmanical pre-scientific science of correlations (see below).

The other Vedic Sam. hitās dealing with the new Śrauta ritual (SV, YV, and AV) were collected during the early Kuru period, too. These are linguistically younger than the RV, younger even than its late appendix book 10. At this time, the traditional jobs of the various Vedic priests were divided into four classes, attributed to the four main Śrauta priests who were to represent and use the Four Vedas. They include (each with three helpers) the Hotar who now only recites Mantras from the RV, the Ugātar who sings the Sāman melodies, the Adhvaryu who is the main offering priest carrying out the actions of the Śrauta ritual while mumbling Yajurveda Mantras, and the Brahmán priest who supervises the whole of the ritual, mostly in silence (Renou 1949, Brereton 1988) and remedies it, in case of mistakes, by reciting a few Mantras from the Atharvaveda (Bodewitz 1983).

When the Sam. hitā texts were collected, they were each ordered in particular but individual ways: The RV is arranged according to strict, mostly numerical principles (Oldenberg 1888): Its first level of order is that of author (family/clan), followed by that of deity and meter, that is, inside each family collection the hymns are arranged according to deities: Agni and Indra come first, then other deities, depending on the number of hymns addressed to them (in decreasing order); inside each deity collection the longer hymns come first and the shortest last; in case of equal length, a hymn with a longer meter comes first. This organization is well reflected in the core (“family”) books of the RV. All hymns that do not follow this order were added after the initial collection, as is clear by their many late grammatical and other features. The family books of the RV are arranged in increasing order, from short books (RV 2) to longer ones (RV 7); this is visible, however, only when the additional hymns are excised. Thus, if one knows – as is still prescribed today before reciting a hymn – its author, deity, and meter, one can pinpoint its location in the RV family books accurately. This “numerical” arrangement was perfect for society without script.

The Other Vedic Sam.hitās

While the RV contains original compositions, the Sāmaveda was extracted, except for 75 verses, from RV 9 and 8. These stanzas are sung, mostly during the Soma ritual, in a very elaborate fashion, including much coloratura and the often nonsensical stobhas (such as the string hā o hā o hā hāyi or bhā, dada, hup). They are the earliest preserved music of India. The SV is divided into two main sections, the Arcika containing the actual text used, and the Gāna which containing the melodies themselves. These are designated by the text of well known melodies, somewhat in the following fashion: one should sing a certain text according to the melody “God save the Queen,” which is also applied to the American song “America it is thee,” to the imperial hymn of Germany, and to the royal one of Norway.

In stark contrast to the other Veda texts, the Atharvaveda contains, in its oldest sections, magical poems used for healing and for all sorts of magic, including destructive sorcery (AV 1–7). To these sometimes very old texts (reminiscent of Germanic and Hittite sorcery stanzas), a large number of speculative hymns (AV 8–12), other hymns dealing with the most important life cycle rituals (AV 13–18) as well as two appendixes (AV 19–20) have been added.

The AV is ordered, most clearly in its Paippalāda version, in clear opposition to the arrangement of the ṚgVeda: it starts with a book that is composed entirely of short hymns of just 4 stanzas and increases to one that has 19. To this nucleus of sorcery stanzas (PS 1–15), the speculative (PS 16–17) and Gṛhya type hymns (PS 18) as well as the appendixes (PS 19–20) were added.

The Yajurveda, however, mainly contains prose Mantras (yajus.) that are used as offering formulas; they must accompany each individual action in ritual (yajña) carried out by the Adhvaryu priest who mumbles them as he proceeds, for example “you are heaven, you are earth,” “move through the interspace!”

These prose Mantras have not been recorded in the ṚgVeda, though the yajus. genre is mentioned, and the extant YV Mantras are younger in form andgrammar than the RV. Originally, they consisted only of simple, though rhythmicalprose; but already in the first collections (MS, KS, TS), verses from the RV have been added in a linguistically later form that is often slightly degraded by perseveration. Once the YV Sam. hitās were collected according to diverse śākhātraditions, however, the form of the Mantras did no longer change and they were transmitted faithfully to this very day.

To these Mantras, large sections of brāhmaṇa style expository prose have been added during the YV prose period (see below). Both of them combined consti- tute the texts of the Black Yajurveda, while the explanatory prose (ŚB) is separated from the Mantras (VS) in the White YV whose Sam. hitā (VS) was only secondarily extracted from the late Vedic ŚB.

The YV Mantras have not been arranged numerically as in the RV, SV, and AV but in the order they are used in Śrauta ritual: they form small, individual Mantra collections meant for each ritual. However, the order of these individual Mantra collections inside the two dozen extent YV Sam. hitās followed a fixed order already by the time of the first YV Sam. hitā collection; this order is maintained, with minor variations, down to the Sūtras.

The YV starts with two small collections, that of the vegetarian New and Full Moon offerings (haviryajña) and of that of the all important Soma ritual, both of which form the paradigm (prakti) of (most) other Śrauta rituals; even the animal sacrifices (paśubandha) are technically considered as haviryajñas.

The Post-Ṛgvedic Reform of the Śrauta Ritual

While the Śrauta ritual (yajña) has been central to most post-Ṛgvedic texts, detailed descriptions are only found in the late Vedic period, in the Śrauta Sūtras. Earlier texts, such as the Mantra Sam. hitās and the discussion of selected details in the Brāhmaṇa texts allow only to infer the general course of the ritual, while its exact order is not strictly followed. We need a new, detailed survey of Śrauta rituals and their contents (Hillebrandt 1897, Keith 1925, Renou & Filliozat 1947; Gonda 1960, Mylius 1973: 475–98, cf. Renou 1953 with a lexicon of ritual terminology, Dandekar and Kashikar 1958–, with the extensive but still only half-complete Śrautakośa compendium).

A thorough interpretation of the Śrauta ritual that uses the wealth of Vedic descriptions and contemporaneous native interpretation is a desideratum. Though begun a hundred years ago (S. Lévi 1898, Hubert & Mauss 1923–4, Mus 1935: 79–121, cf. Sahlins 1972, Witzel 1992, 1998, Lopez 1997), a comprehensive interpretation still is outstanding – disregarding for the moment recent monolateral theories (agonistic origins: Heesterman 1985, 1993; meaninglessness: Staal 1979a,b; 1990). In addition, the structure(s) of the ritual, the interrelations of particular rituals, and their internal development (Staal 1982, 1990, cf. Witzel 1981/2, 1997a,b, Falk 1986, 1988) still deserve more study. The Śrauta ritual is built up of multiple frames or “boxes” (Heesterman 1957, 1993, Witzel 1984b, 1986b: 172, 1987a, 1992, Minkowski 1992). For example, avāntarad īks.ā means “the lower, inner consecration,” i.e. the one which has been inserted into the normal consecration rite of the Soma ritual. Smaller and larger sets put together form new (sub)units, and there is a tendency, just as in Paṇinean grammar, to substitute one set by another (Hillebrandt 1897, Heesterman 1957, Witzel 1986b).

For now, the meaning of Vedic ritual (yajña) may be summarized as follows (Witzel 1992, 1998, Jamison and Witzel, 2002): its most important feature, mostly neglected until recently, is the principle of reciprocal exchange (Witzel 1979, 1998, Weber-Brosamer 1988, Malamoud 1989, Wilden 1992, Lopez 1997; denied by Heesterman, 1985: 83): the classical “do¯ ut de¯s” is expressed as “give me, I give you” (dehi me dadāmi te, TS, VS 3.50, Mylius 1973: 476). The ritual oblations and the hymns of praise are just one act in an endless cycle of exchanges of anna “food” between the humans and the gods. The term annain fact stands for a variety of substances, so that a whole chapter (TU 3) surprisingly can deal with “food” (Lopez 1997). The concept survives to this day as “code substance” in actual exchange, especially in village society (Marriot 1976). In Vedic ritual and in modern society it is the code substance “food” that is given, altered, consumed and partially returned, keeping the path open for future transactions (Sahlins 1972).

In some detail: the fire god (Agni) carries the offerings to the gods. Fire also transubstantiates the offerings, not simply (Malamoud 1972) by a conversion from a raw, uncooked state into a palatable, cooked one but also by one from a mundane substance into one with divine characteristics; during this process its various consistent parts are split up and take new shapes (Vādh. Br. 4.19a =Caland 1990: 416ff).

As such, “food” travels towards the gods in the form of smoke and aroma (medha) and is consumed by them. The remains here on earth are a return gift of the gods who have tasted the food while sitting at the sacred fire, soiled it by their spittle and rendered it consumable only by their socially inferior relations, the human beings: this is the remnant (ucchis.ṭa), greatly extolled (AV 11.6) as having enormous potential (Malamoud 1975, Wezler 1978, Lopez 1997). The gods also give other return gifts to men, e.g. rain, sons, food, long life – the standard wishes of a Vedic Indian.

Apart from the gods, the ancestors and the ancient sages and poets, the R.s. is, are part of the system of exchange as well. Offering to all of them is regarded as delivering oneself from the innateṛṇa “debt, obligation” (cf. Malamoud 1989: 115–36) that is inherent to all men. It is based on the simple fact that human beings are the somatic descendants of the gods (via the Āditya Vivasvant/ Mārtāṇd. a and his son Manu, the ancestor of mankind). As such, they have to take care of their direct and ultimate ancestors, just as the present gods (deva) do of their own ancestors (Aditi myth, MS 1.6.12) by offering food (śrāddha, piṇd.a) and water to their three direct ancestors and to a vague group of less immediate pitṛs.

For the brahmins the R.s. is represent both direct somatic and spiritual ancestors; these, the poets of the RV, are a dead poets’ society who have actually gained access to heaven. While both Pitṛs and R.s. is are fed with actual food offerings, the seers additionally receive their own sort of “code substance” (anna), that is speech (vāc), through the daily recitation by humans of their Ṛgvedic poetry. Even today, Vedic recitation is preceded by the actual mentioning of the poet’s name as to supply him with “spiritual food.” The circle is closed by the release of “divine” inspiration (dh ī) to latter-day poets who want to compose “a new song” (bráhman), such as a speculative hymn in the AV, a ritual gāthā, or a sorcery spell (bráhman) all of which make truth work (satyakriyā).

The ritual system, however, does not work without śraddhā (lit. “place the heart,” Latin cre¯do¯), the “confidence” in the efficacy of the ritual, i.e. its ability to motivate counter-gifts and to lead to heaven (Köhler 1948/1973, Lüders 1924, Hara 1964, Hacker 1963.)

The ritual procedure thus represents an eternal cycle which functions within the bounds of R.ta. Various more or less abstract notions take part as well, e.g. vāc, bráhman, śraddhā/manas, karman (action), anna, ucchis.ṭa, many of which are dealt with in the speculative hymns of the RV and AV and are in need of detailed study.

Reciprocity is not confined to sentient beings but also found in the phenomenal world as a system of constant recycling: phenomena originating in heaven (such as rain) come to earth and nourish and are even transformed into other entities (such as plants and other living beings, semen, milk) that ultimately make their way to heaven again (as offering). In this cycle nothing is wasted or lost (Frauwallner 1953: 49, Schneider 1961, Bodewitz 1973: 243ff.), a concept that contributed largely to the middle Vedic system of homologies and correlations.

This mutual exchange is also seen in the social relations between men – e.g. between a sponsor (yajamāna) and his priest or his poet. The poet bestows praise on the patron, aids him in praising the gods, and expects material rewards in return, as is clearly and detailedly expressed in the so-called dānastuti or “Praise of the gift” of the RV. Similarly, the priests expect their daks.iṇā “priestly gift,” whose extent and nature is mandated by the reciprocal system and by the nature of the ritual in question. The daks.iṇā seems to be a “diversion” to the priest of the original gift given to the departing guest (i.e. the gods!). For, the ritual system of exchange is based on the formalized rules of (human) hospitality (Thieme 1957b) and of marriage, where reciprocity is seen in the function of Aryaman as god of marriage who supervises guest friendship and the inherent exchange of brides.

Other major features of the Śrauta ritual include: there is no fixed place of performance, no temple or permanent structure: the Śrauta ritual is “portable,” with a new sacrificial ground and with new, simple (archaic) wooden and clay implements in each ritual. The ground is prepared by careful measurement and demarcation (see Śulba Sū tra, Michaels 1978) and the building of fire altars. The central act of almost all Vedic rituals is the offering of various edible or drinkable substances into these 3–5 (and in some rites even more) fires.

The ritual is sponsored by the yajamāna or “sacrificer” (lit. “one sacrificing on his own behalf ”), who first has to become an āhitāgni (one “having established fires”), after studentship and marriage, and belonging to the three “Twice Born” Ārya classes, (Brāhmaṇa, Ks.atriya, Vaiśya); only these thus could gain direct access to heaven through Śrauta ritual; the Śūdra were then and still are excluded.

Ritual performance involves a number of priests (up to 16 or 17, divided into four groups). These, and the four Vedas they represent, cooperate closely in the performance of a particular Śrauta sacrifice (“as in a violin quartet,” Caland 1990).

The main participants, however, are the (except for Soma and Agni) invisible deities who are invited to attend as guests in a formal, ceremonial act of hospitality; they are fed and entertained by praise and song (Thieme 1957a,b). Medieval and modern pūjā still retain this pattern (Witzel 1980, Bühnemann 1988).

The rituals range from the simplest one, the Agnihotra or “Fire Offering,” to the most elaborate of the Śrauta rituals, such as the Agnicayana (“piling of the fire [altar]”) and the horse sacrifice (Aśvamedha). Their complexity is derived from incorporation of many less complex Śrauta rites (Hillebrandt 1897, 1987; Heesterman 1957, 1985; Staal 1982, 1990; Witzel 1987a, 1992, Minkowski 1992).

The most important rituals include the following. The initial establishment of the fire, the Agnyādheya (Moody 1989, Krick 1982); then, the Haviryajñas, most of which are determined by the rhythm of the year, and of the sun and the moon. The early morning and evening offering of milk (and similar products) into the fires (Agnihotra) ensures the survival of the sun during the night (Dumont 1939, Bodewitz 1976, Witzel 1986a, 1992). Brief as it is (some 15 minutes), it comprises about 100 actions; a number of extraneous rites havebeen added, such as an offering of milk to the Aśvins, the setting in motion ofthe heavenly waters of the Milky Way and of semen for men and milk for women (Witzel 1992); in addition we find the usual Vedic wishes: sons, rain, cattle, superiority within clan and tribe, living for the proverbial hundred years, and finding a way to Heaven. Śrauta ritual clearly is multivocal; the original meaning of any Śrauta ritual cannot easily be found; all its actions and the Mantras used and their history have to be traced first (Witzel 1981/2).

Other liminal rituals include the “New (and) Full Moon” sacrifice (Dārśapūrṇamāsa), offered twice per lunar month (Hillebrandt 1879, Rustagi 1981), and the seasonal rituals, the “four-monthly” Cāturmāsya, in spring, rainy season, and autumn, and additionally, around New Year (Bhide 1979, Einoo 1985, 1988).

The Paśubandha or “Animal Sacrifice” (Schwab 1886) is also integrated into the Soma ritual, and involves the killing of an animal. The inauspicious effect of killing is undone by involving substitution for the Adhvaryu priests and “bloodless” suffocation outside the actual offering ground; both are major features of the Śrauta mind set, as exemplified by the foundational (charter) myth of the Aśvins as the Adhvaryu priests of the gods (Witzel 1987a,b, 1997b, see below.)

The Soma Sacrifices are based on the Agnis.ṭoma, a one day ritual (Caland-Henry 1906–7) that involves a special consecration (dīks.ā) of the Yajamāna andthe pressing and offering of Soma in the early morning, at midday, and in thelate afternoon. An important preliminary (and charter type) rite is the Pravargya,a hot milk drink for the Aśvins (van Buitenen 1968, Kashikar 1972). Variantsof the Soma ritual last up to a year or even more; in the important 12 (ormore) day Sattra (“Sitting”) variety, the priests themselves undertake the ritualfor their joint benefit (Falk 1985).

Other important Śrauta rituals include the Rājasūya (“Consecration of the King,” Weber 1893, Heesterman 1957), the Aśvamedha (“Horse Sacrifice,” Dumont 1927, S. Bhawe 1939) which can only be performed by a great king, and also the atypical Agnicayana (“Piling of the Fire Altar,” Staal 1983, Kolhatkar 1986), a Soma ritual in which an additional raised fire altar of bricks is used. (A film and video tapes of the 1975 performance in Kerala have been used by Staal 1983.)

The Brāhmaa Texts

All aspects of the Śrauta ritual have been discussed at length in the so-called brāhmaṇa texts. The oldest texts, in a stark expository style, are contained in the YV Sam. hitās of the Black Yajurveda. The linguistically younger ones are independent texts, the Brā proper, which are attached to each of the four Vedas-Sam. hitās (see the Appendix at the end of this chapter). The most important texts are the JB of southern and the ŚB of eastern North India, the early AB of the eastern Panjab (its later sections, AB 6–8, come from the East), and the still largely unused VādhB, which is situated between the JB and ŚB.

Differently from the power entailed in poetic composition (bráhman) and its correct recitation, the Brāhmaṇa style text stress correct knowledge (“he who knows thus,” ya evam. veda) of the hidden meanings of the ritual and the correlations (homologies) on which it is based (Witzel 1979, Wezler 1996). This socalled “identification” technique correlates certain items in the three spheres of microcosm (humans, society), mesocosm (yajña, i.e. ritual), and macrocosm (gods, universe, cf. Klaus 1986). This procedure led to a complex, amorphous (and still not completely described) web of “hidden” cosmic and mundane interrelations that was known only to the ritual specialists who used it to obtain certain desired effects.

The universe thus is a rich and esoteric system of homologies. This “ritual science” (Oldenberg 1919, Schayer 1925, Witzel 1979, B. K. Smith 1989, Wezler 1996) is based on the strictly logical application of the rule of cause and effect, even though its initial propositions (e.g. “the sun is gold”) are something that we would not accept. The power of such esoteric Brahmanical knowledge has led – a fact that is not always recognized – directly to the speculations found in the The system was increasingly systematized by whole sets of parallel and interlinking correlations, so that by the time of the, certain truths about the world and the humans could be expressed by a simple summation such as “tat tvam asi” (Brereton 1986).

The Brāhmaṇa style prose texts thus are the oldest explanations, in fact native commentaries, of the literal meaning of the Mantras, of their ritual applications, and of their often hidden secret import; futher, these texts discuss many of the individual actions of the ritual. In addition, they deal with a large variety of topics, from etymology to customs and beliefs; they also include many mythological tales that are meant to bolster the status of individual rites, as well as much incidental ritual speculation.

An all-important point of discussion in this period is how to avoid evil (agha,enas, pāpa) and pollution. This wish – and not the avoidance of violence as such (Heesterman 1985), which always remains involved in the classical ritual – is one of the important driving forces behind the Kuru time Śrauta reform. The little studied and less understood myth of Indra cutting off the head of Dadhyañc is the “charter myth” of the main priests acting in ritual, the Adhvaryus, who want to avoid direct involvement in the evil and pollution caused by killing necessary in ritual. They delegate these actions to helpers, working outside the sacrificial ground, and killing is not even referred to overtly: the animal is “pacified” (śam) (Witzel 1987a: ṇ 103); similarly, evil and illnesses are sent off in all directions (Witzel 1980).

The actual reform of the ritual, and its origins in the early Kuru realm, however, can clearly be attributed to a combination of late/post-RV political, social and religious changes (Witzel 1989b, 1995/1997a,b). The relationship between the development of Vedic ritual and changing social and political structures still is a promising field for further inquiry (Zimmer, 1879: 425–8; W. Rau 1957, Falk 1986, Witzel 1989b, 1997a,b).

The Ārayaka Texts

Āraṇyaka (Ā r.) should have been translated, for nearly a century (Oldenberg 1915), as “wilderness (texts),” not as frequently still met with, as “forest texts.” For, these texts are not texts meant for ascetics but as regular brāhmaṇa style texts which discuss the more secret and dangerous rituals. Therefore, they have been prescribed to be learned and recited outside, “from where one cannot see the roofs of the settlement.” The main focus are the Mahāvrata (RV Ā r.) and the Pravargya (YV Ā ṛ) rituals. The treatment of the Pravargya in Śatapatha Br. Is not only part of the Br. itself (ŚB 14) but even is referred to in ŚB 4 (Witzel, 1987a).

Because of their special position as additional texts the Ā ṛ have become an open category where one could add all sorts of later Vedic texts, such as many and even one early Sūtra (in ŚĀ). Many extraneous items have added to the nucleus of dangerous Śrauta rituals, including even post-Vedic (MNU).

The often maintained connection of the Ā ṛ texts with the post-Vedic life stage of the vānaprastha is only a medieval fiction. Also, the idea that these texts are spiritually more complex and evolved than the Brāhmaṇas is modern myth. In effect, it is only the (often part of the Āraṇyakas) that are of philosophical content. In sum, the view that both the Ā ṛ and the should be aligned with the latter two of the (classical, medieval) four life stages (vānaprastha, sannyāsin) is to be rejected as later, post-Vedic interpretation.


The (Up.) contain the secret teaching, by a variety of late Vedic teachers, of early philosophical speculation about the nature of the world and of humans and their fate after death, as well as the earliest discussion of the workings of rebirth and karma. Various small heterogeneous sections have subsequently been added, such as last admonitions of the teacher to his “graduating,” departing students (Witzel 1980, Thieme 1989). The texts were often called Rahasya “secret,” as they were supposed to be learned only by specially selected students, which explains their often less well preserved state of transmission. Tradition, indeed, sees the Up.s as the end of the Veda (vedānta), that is of the four “historical” levels of the Sam. hitās, Br.s, Ā ṛs, and Up.s, while in fact, the late Vedic Sūtras (see below) still are an integral part of the Vedic canon.

It is from the background of the Brāhmaṇa style texts that the thinking of the emerges. If not radically new, it still involves a thorough rethinking of the existing correlative premises, in part influenced by late Vedic social conditions of the eastern territories of North India (Kosala, Videha). Here, a thorough reorganization of the brāhmaṇa style texts (in ŚB) took place, including a rethinking of many of the earlier “theological” positions. Further, the increasing Sanskritization of the area along western (Kuru) models brought about the formation of canonical texts, a general ordering of Śrauta procedure, and new deliberations of its inherent meaning (Witzel 1997a,b).

Thus, the do not break with tradition but rather continue it, influenced by the current and local religious background (Renou 1953). While they are often treated as the beginning of philosophical tradition in India (or as a precursor to early Buddhist and Jain thought) they are in fact the almost inevitable outcome of the intellectual development of the Brāhmaṇa period, when such questioning was prominent both inside and between the Vedic schools (śākhā). However, it was expressed differently, not in Upanis.adic dialogue form, but by statements such as “some say . . .” or by the frequent quotations of divergent views in the brāhmaṇa type texts, especially in ŚB where various “solutions” to a problem are habitually discussed and still presented as authoritative, positive statements of truths. The Up.s, however, contain discussions in the form of real dialogues, involving severe questioning and reluctant admission of innocence or boastful claims of knowledge.

The Up.s deal with the eternal problems of humankind, that is: where do we come from, why we are here, where go? In other words, with the nature of body and soul, their fate after a death, and their position in the Universe. Additionally, following the trend towards larger scale correlations, the ritual itself increasingly becomes the subject of cosmic identifications (e.g. the horse of the Aśvamedha in BĀ UK 1.1). But, ritual also is interiorized and can be performed entirely mentally (Bodewitz 1973). Both positions are signs of the intense contemporaneous intellectual activity that apparently included also some Ks.atriyas and women (Oldenberg 1915, Renou 1953, Horsch 1966, Witzel 1989a).

Certain new doctrines emerge: The late Brāhmaṇa opinion on the fate of humans after death (punarmtyu), and most importantly, karma which is now joined to the older concept of automatic rebirth (Kane 1962, Horsch 1971, O’Flaherty 1981, Tull 1989, Göhler 1990). Most studies, however, fail to investigate these concepts in their proper setting, that is by asking: what happens, in the view of Vedic people, at conception, at birth and at death to a human being (Witzel 1984a, 1998, Ikari 1989)?

The older Vedic (and probably Indo-European) idea involved an automatic, continuous cycle of human beings: after death, a stay in the blissful world of the ancestors, limited only by the “amount” of one’s ritual actions (is.ṭāpūrta, sukta), and a subsequent automatic rebirth (MS 1.8.6), preferably within one’s own clan and usually after the third of fourth generation. Nobody wanted to escape from this cycle of eternal return, except for the wealthy sponsors of Śrauta ritual who hoped to attain, eternally, the Heaven of the gods. The opposite, getting out of the cycle by becoming a renouncer (sannyāsin), developed only during the Up. period. The only other “escapees” are precisely those who have committed some serious actions that undermine the closed Vedic system of exchanges: murderers of embryos, of the brahmins’ cow, etc.: that is, destroyers of the allimportant “line of progeny” (prajātantu TU 1.11, 11, Witzel 2000) and of poetic inspiration (dh ī, dhenā), the “cow” (dhenu) of the Brahmins (Witzel 1991); all these drop forever into “deepest darkness,” into the lap of Nirṛti “destruction.”

The earlier system of automatic recycling was now replaced by one conditioned by the moral value of the actions undertaken during one’s lifetime. The new concept has its predecessors, on the one hand, in the fear of a second death (punarmtyu) occurring after a limited stay in the ancestor’s world, and on the other, by the fear of a retribution in the other world, as exemplified by the vision of Bhṛgu (ŚB 11.6.1, JB 1.42): humans are cut up by trees felled by them and they are devoured by animals slaughtered in this world.

The old concept of cause and effect thus was linked with some new anxieties. One was no longer sure of the beneficial effects of ritual that allowed to neutralize all violent, “evil” actions carried out in ritual, to “beat away the second death,” and to attain the desired permanent stay in heaven (Schmidt 1997). Now, all human actions (karma), not just the ritual ones, have their automatic consequence, as expressed by the new and secret karma idea. The juncture of the old concept of automatic rebirth with that of the younger one of automatic karma set the stage (Schmidt 1968b) for the development of a consistent theory of retribution in one’s next life according to the actions (karma) undertaken in this one. This is the basis of nearly all of later Indian philosophy and should be studied as such.

Once, ChU 5.3.7 clearly says that the karma concept was known only to the Ks.atriyas, and in BĀU 3.2.6 Yājñavalkya takes his fellow brahmin Ārtabhāga apart to talk with him privately about karma. Apparently, the idea was not very “popular” at first. It originated with some brahmins in Yājñavalkya’s time in northern Bihar (Witzel 1989a), and spread at an uneven pace: even in the last part of ChU, at 8.15, it was still felt necessary to speak about killing in ritual as not being evil, in fact, as guiltless (Witzel 1987a,b), and the beginning of the Bhagavadg ītā still defends the dharma of a Ks.atriya as the norm – that is the duty to fight and kill.

However, the cycle of automatic rebirths has now been broken for the first time. The Upanis.adic ascetics (such as Yājñavalkya, when he “went forth into homelessness,” BĀU 4.5.15) and the contemporaries of the Buddha strive for emancipation that frees them from the sam. sāra of rebirth. Formerly, this was only the undesired lot destined for felons who had committed severe offenses. Now, one leaves home forever to strive for the knowledge of brahma Traditional society quite consequently regarded such persons, once they had left, as socially “dead,” and it did not allow for their return. Some middle level texts (Kaṭha-Śruti Up., Mānava Śrautasūtra 8.25, Sprockhoff 1987) have preserved a ritual of taking leave from home and all one’s possessions while declaring nonviolence (ahim. sā) to all beings.

Several factors thus come together and lead to a qualitative breakthrough, which results in the new karmic rebirth idea and, based on increasing use of higher levels of correlations, in the assertion of the identity of the human soul (ātman) with that of brahman (neuter) in such famous sentences as tat tvam asi(ChU 6.10.3, Brereton 1986).

Many facets of the newly introduced concepts still are in need of detailed study, e.g. that of a scale on which one’s deeds are weighed and other Iranian/Zoroastrian/(Śaka?) concepts. However, the often repeated conviction that it was the Ks.atriyas who introduced the karma concept is far-fetched (Horsch 1966, Olivelle 1996: xxxiv). The mentioning of the topic by a king, a god (Varuṇa), or Yājñavalkya’s secretive conference rather are literary devices (Witzel 1997a) which merely underline the importance of the theme. Using a woman, Gārg ī, in BĀU 3 has similar effect as women usually do not appear in public assemblies of learned disputation and when they do so, they stand out. The other prominent woman in BĀU, Maitrey ī, quite untypically had learnt Brahmanical lore. It is only to her that Yājñavalkya speaks about eschatology (BĀU 4.5.15). Similarly, the idea that it was the Jainas, the local aboriginal people, etc. who “invented” these ideas is, of course nothing more than an admission of ignorance (O’Flaherty 1981), as there simply are no early records of the Jainas and even less of the aboriginal inhabitants. Rather, later Vedic thought quite naturally led to this stage, and to a whole range of more or less contemporary and quite diverse points of view, as discussed in the Pali canon (D īghanikāya 2).

Why did these developments take place precisely at this moment, and in this area of Northern India (Kosala, E. Uttar Pradesh, and Videha, N. Bihar)? The breakthrough is similar to the more or less contemporary ones elsewhere – even if Jaspers’ idea of an “axial age” suffers from some severe incongruencies in the actual time frame. Indeed, external influence is not likely in Bihar, unless one posits some Iranian influence (see above): after all, Zoroastrianism first stressed individual decision making: one had to chose between “good” and “evil” and had to face a last judgment after death.

The Kosala–Videha area was one of great mixture of peoples due to various movements of tribes and individuals, and consequently also of ideas (Witzel 1989a: 236, 1997a). It also was a part of the spread-zone of the western, Kuru type Vedic orthopraxy. Some late- or post-Vedic immigrants such as the Malla, Vṛji (Vajji), or especially the Śākya, may be Iranian tribes (Witzel 1989a: 239) who may have transmitted (para-)Zoroastrian influence. Further, there was admixture of local Muṇd. a peoples (AB 7.18), of older, eastern Indo-Aryan settlers, and of contemporaneous immigrants including many western Brahmins. A comparison of the late Vedic and early Buddhist texts indicates admixture of the older, para-Vedic Indo-Aryan religion of the East with the orthodoxy and orthopraxy of the “missionary” Kuru-Pañcāla Brahmins of the West, who were invited by such kings as Mahākosala and (Mahā)-Janaka (Witzel 1989a, 1997a) of the emerging large kingdoms of Kosala and Magadha. Finally, there was the social ferment created by the contemporaneously emerging cities (of the socalled second urbanization, after the Indus civilization). The Vedic texts hardly, if ever, speak about towns (Mylius 1969); however, Brahmins never liked their polluting social atmosphere and rather preferred to live in the countryside where they could regulate their life properly. Yet, by the time of the Pali texts, cities are fully established, with rich merchants carrying out a long distance overland trade (of the luxury article, Northern Black Polished Ware), and brahmins living in the formerly off-limits lands of Magadha and Aṇga.

All of these admixtures supplied the ideal breeding ground for the meeting of ideas and the development of new concepts. Just as the break-up of the old Ṛgvedic tribal society caused enormous social and religious change (see above), the new stratified and partly aristocratic, partly oligarchic (not a “republican” one, Rhys-Davies 1911), and partly urban society of the East witnessed the emergence of many of the typically Upanis.adic ideas described above.

The so-called Middle Up.s ( Īśa, Kaṭha, Kena, Praśna, Muṇd.a, Māṇd.ūkya, Śvetāśvatara, Mahānārayaṇa, etc.) are no longer composed in prose but in verse and are heavily influenced by the post-Vedic (Epic) language. Many of them show a tendency towards the sectarian worship of a particular deity. The Sam. nyāsa Up.s (Sprockhoff 1976, Olivelle 1992), composed around 300 bce, discuss the newly introduced life stage of the renouncer. The Bhagavadg ītā of the Mahābhārata is sometimes regarded as an Up. as well. Sectarian Up.s (in Epic/ Classical Sanskrit) have been composed well into the Middle Ages. In the interpretation of the the eighth century monistic philosopher Śaṇkara has played an important but generally overrated role. We still are in need of a detailed philological edition and discussion of the important older

The Śrautasūtras

The Vedic canon concludes with the late Vedic Sūtras (“thread, guideline,” or Kalpasūtra “ritual guidelines”) which form the true end of the Vedic period and its texts, though the classical/medieval tradition assigns them to a separate category, the Smṛti texts. Indeed, the older ones among them (BŚS, VādhŚS, etc.) are still composed in late Br. language. The Sūtras are descriptive and prescriptive texts that deal systematically, in the proper order of ritual procedure, with the solemn ritual (Śrauta Sūtra), with the domestic rituals (Gṛhya Sūtra), and with the rules of proper behavior as a Veda student or as householder (Dharma Sūtra). (There also are various later additions to all Vedic texts, Pariśis.ṭa.)

The older Sūtras such as BŚS, VādhŚS explain the complicated ritual stepby- step and at great length, in clear prose and by quoting the Mantras in extenso. Even if a ritual that is described later in the text is built out of ritual blocks described earlier, these older Sūtras still describe such complex rituals in extenso. Later Sūtras make increasing use of the referring technique which points back to earlier parts of the text by quotation (“as said earlier”) and of using just the initial words of a Mantra (prat īka). The later texts use shorter and shorter (nominal) clauses, a technique seen in its apogee in Pāṇini’s grammatical Sū tras, the As.ṭādhyāyī.

The most important Sūtras include the early BaudhŚS and VādhŚS, the somewhat later ĀpŚS (with many quotations from other texts), all of the YV; the early KŚS of the RV, the LŚS and JŚS of the SV, and the rather late VaitS of the AV. The ŚS of the White YV, the late KŚS is the one most developed one along the lines described above.

The contents of the Śrautasūtras follow, by and large, the scheme first set out in the Mantra collection of the Yajurveda Sam.hitās, and the individual rules follow those of the Brāhmaṇa style texts (Tsuji 1952).

The Ghyasūtras

The Gṛhya Sūtras (GS) often form part of, or actually are, an appendix to the Śrauta Sūtras, and some of them refer back to ritual details described earlier in the same text or even in the Śrauta Sūtra. Their contents, however, often are very old. Some of the rites of passage (sam. skāra, Pandey 1957, P. V. Kane 1930–62, Gonda 1980a), such as burial and marriage, have been described already in the RV and AV, and some of the details may in fact go back even to the Indo-European period, for example the offering of three meat balls (later, made of rice) in the anniversary rituals (śrāddha) for one’s three immediate ancestors (Schrader 1919), or the cult of the fire, or the marriage ceremony; other items, such as the initiation of the student by a girdle, are of Indo-Iranian age (Avesṭ aißiiāhana, Ved. mekhalā).

By and large, the GS deal with the rites of passage form birth to death (Stenzler 1864, Hillebrandt 1897, Apte 1939, transl. Oldenberg 1886/1892), or rather, from one’s conception to one’s dissolution in the vague group of ancestors (pitṛ). The GS thus are a cyclical set of rituals variously arranged as starting with marriage, with initiation to Veda study (upanayana), or even with pregnancy.

The “original” contents of the Gṛhya texts (Oldenberg 1892), however, have been influenced by the much more predominant ritual form, that of the Śrauta ritual (Gonda 1977, B. K. Smith 1986). Thus, even in the supposedly “simple” domestic ritual, the activity of the yajamānawas superseded by the actions of the Brahmin house priest (purohita). However, there is only a single fire as compared to the 3–5 of the Śrauta ritual, and many of the simple Gṛhya rituals have counterparts in the solemn Śrauta ones, including the morning and evening offerings (homa), the New and Full Moon offerings, etc. Their exact (pre)history is difficult to establish.

This is different, as indicated, for marriage and death as even the RV contains hymns devoted to marriage (10.85, expanded in AV 14, PS 18.1–14) and to funerals (10.14–18, AV 18, PS 18.57–82); in addition, PS 20 even contains some of the actual dialogue of the upanayana rituals (cf. ŚB 11, TĀ 2, TU 1.11, KaṭhŚiU), similar to the verbal exchanges at the marriage ceremony (Kajihara 2002). The rather composite RV marriage hymn is a recounting of the mythical origin and prototype of human marriage, that of the goddess Sū ryā with Soma. Some marriage features of the GS (Apte 1978, Winternitz 1892, Zachariae 1977, 1989, Tsuji 1960) are clearly present in the RV, others are not yet mentioned (the circumambulation of the fire, the mounting of the stone, the gazing at the pole-star) but already appear in the AV. The funeral hymns clearly describe cremation, though the RV also refers to burial, exposure on trees and “throwing away” of the dead body. Sat ī was not practiced (Witzel 1996); in fact, there is evidence for levirate marriage (Schmidt 1987). Much space is given in the GS to ancestor worship (Caland 1893, 1896, 1914, Winternitz 1892).

The yearly return of the Veda student to his teacher (Heesterman 1985) follows a period of about half a year away from “school” when the young men (marya) were members in a Vrātya Männerbund, as reflected already in some earlier Vedic texts (cf. AV 15, PS 18; Falk 1986, Bollée 1981, Heesterman, 1981: 251–71). The vrātyas, frequently still misunderstood as semi- or non-Ārya, live a roaming, independent and promiscuous life while trying to collect a “starting capital” of cattle, by threatening, from the settled section of society. They are reflected, in the divine sphere by the daivya vrātya, the Gandharvas (Vasilkov 1991).

Women are not prominently discussed in these and other Vedic texts (Jamison 1996), though their role in the sam. skāras of marriage and child birth is of course prominent. However, the role of women in the is usually overstated. The only(!) two famous ones, Gārg ī and Maitrey ī, are inserted – just like Ks.atriyas and kings, or the son of a god, Bhṛgu – at critical, innovative or striking junctures of a dialogue. Yet, there also is clear, though sparse evidence of female learned activity, such as at BĀU 6.4.17 which has a prescription of how to obtain a female R.s.i in one’s family, as is indeed mentioned for the Atri clan (JB 2.219).

Just as the AV Sam. hitās, the “Gṛhya Sūtra” of the AV (KauśS, Bloomfield 1889, Caland 1900) contains many facets of early Indian life that would otherwise escape us. The text uses the same, magical system of homologies that cor-relate and control macrocosmic forces by microcosmic manipulation (Henry 1904, Stutley 1980). Earlier, comparable texts are the official Śrauta rituals, the Kāmyā Iṭi “wish offerings” of the YV (Caland 1908). The KauśS provides many usages for the AV Sam.hitā spells; other sorcery practices are found in the (late) Sāmavidhāna Brāhmaṇa. Many obscure magical terms have been preserved in more recent sorcery (Türstig 1980). The only partially translated KauśS. is a virtual handbook of customs and beliefs, of common white and black sorcery, of healing procedures (Filliozat 1975, Zysk 1985), of omina and portent (Weber 1859). Many such details can be followed up later on in the AV Pariśis.ṭa and in the medieval books on dreams (Stuhrmann 1982, v. Negelein 1912), or in the Jyotis.a literature (Pingree 1981).

The Dharmasū tras

These Sūtras deal with dharma “proper behavior,” beginning with that of a Veda student, and moving to that of a married man (gṛhastha), his daily and seasonal ritual duties, family life, to the death rituals and ancestor worship and inheritance; some also include the duties of a king and his jurisprudence, the four stages in life, and long sections on atonements for wrong behavior. These rules have provided the basis for medieval and modern Anglo-Indian Hindu law.

Many of these rules overlap with those of the Gṛhya Sūtras, and some may be quite old, such as the incidental rule, found also in Pindar’s Erga, not to urinate towards the sun. The Up.s, too, contain a Dharma Sūtra in nuce, the final admonition about good behavior in adult life by a Veda teacher to his departing student (TU 1, KaṭhŚiU, Witzel 1980).

Finally, there are a number of appendixes to the Vedic texts, of various periods, such as the ṚgVeda khila, or the AV-Pariśiṣṭa, some of which are already composed in the style of the Epic and Purāṇas.

Personal and Popular Religion

Personal, popular and non-Brahmanical religion are much less visible in the  Vedic texts, which therefore must be compared with the slightly later Pali canon, and the evidence of the (still little defined) older strata of the Mahābhārata.

Religious feelings and experiences are mentioned by very few poets in the RV, such as Vasiṣṭha in RV 7.86–9 (Goto 2000), who speaks, not unlike Zoroaster, of a very personal relationship with Varuṇa, or Bharadvāja Bārhaspatya who describes (RV 6.9.6–7) not, as usual, a vision but also an acoustic experience of God Agni. Other items include the old Indo-Iranian (and Eurasian) topic of flying through the night time sky on a boat, (both in RV and in Avesta, Oettinger 1988). There also is a shaman-like experience of the “(long) haired one” (Keśin, RV 10.136), cf. also that of the bird Laba (RV 10.119) who touches heaven and earth with his wings. The AV contains much popular sorcery and magic, but in a form that has been influenced by the priests. Later on, we have the infernal visions of Bhṛgu (ŚB, JB) or those of Yājñavalkya of the dream state (BĀU 4.3), or about the way of the emancipated to the “heavenly” palace of Brahman (KU, Thieme 1951/2).

Popular festivals at New Year include horse chariot races and bow shooting, public riddles, sexual banter and public intercourse of two “outcasts” (a prostitute, mahānagnikā, and a Māgadhaman); further, singing and dancing at summer solstice. Such materials have been collected by Zimmer 1879 for the Sam. hitās, and by W. Rau 1957, 1977, Mylius 1971–4, Basu 1969, Gopal 1959 for the later texts.

Some late sections in the GS deal with the worship of particular gods, such as Rudra/Mahādeva/ Īśāna, Viṣṇu/Nārāyaṇa, Śrī, Durgā (Baudhāyana Gṛhyaśeṣasūtra, Atharveda Pariśiṣṭa etc., Einoo 1992, 1996). They contain pūjā-like rites that cannot be pinpointed in time. Pūjā is, however, a clear continuation (Witzel 1980) of the Ṛgvedic guest worship offered to the gods. Other worship, such as that of snake deities (Nāga), trees, etc. is even more opaque. The worship of images is first visible in texts in Patañjali’s Mahābhāṣya (5.3.99: 429.3), at ca. 150 bce.

True heterodoxy is attested by ca. 400 bce when several such systems had developed, including those of wandering teachers such as the Buddha and Mahāv īra (D īghanikāya 2). Nearly all them stem from eastern North India, where the constantly changing cultural ferment favored dialogue and competition. Yājñavalkya’s departure into homelessness (BĀU 4.5.15) takes up the tradition of (long distance) wandering by Veda students and Vrātyas; indeed, the Buddhist saṇgha has, unobserved so far, some vrātya features as well: a single leader of a larger group of equals who wander about in the countryside and live on extortion (or by begging), stay away from settlements, have special dress and speech, etc.

The east was indeed quite different from the western parts of Northern India, as seen in language (Witzel 1989a), social structure including the oligarchic states, and in burial practices: while the Kurus built small square grave mounds, the “easterners and others(!)” have “demonic” round graves (ŚB

We get only glimpses of what may have been other aberrant (ritual?) sexual behavior at AB 7.13, or in the Gosava ritual, or already in the RV notion of śiśnadeva, mūradeva.

Even less can be said about the pre-Vedic religion of the Indus Civilization and of the contemporaneous aboriginal tribes. They were assimilated by Sanskritization, e.g., a leader (sthapati, MS 2.2.4) of the Niṣādas, or at AB 7.18, where the Ṛgvedic(!) R.s.i Viśvāmitra assists the eastern Iks.vāku king Hariścandra by symbolically adopting local “barbarian” tribes (dasyu), such as the Andhra, Puṇdra, Śabara “who live in large numbers beyond the borders.”

Though some ideas, customs and beliefs of the Harappan civilization seem to have been incorporated into the subsequent Vedic world view (tree worship, etc.), a Vedic connection of the so-called Śiva Paśupati found on some Harappa seals (D. Srinivasan 1984) cannot be established; this mythological concept is due, rather, to common Eurasian ideas of the “Lord of the Animals” who is already worshipped by many Neolithic hunting societies. Similarly, the remnants of the so-called fire rituals at Kalibangan (B. B. Lal 1997) involve clearly non- Vedic offerings of animal bones; they (and the so-called “liṇga steles,” actually supports for cooking pots) may represent nothing but a community kitchen of the Indus Civilization (R. S. Sharma 1995: 47).


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