VEDĀṄGAS . Vedāṅgas (Sanskrit, "limbs of the Veda") are subjects supplementary and subsidiary to the Vedas, the sacred texts of the pre-Hindu religion of ancient India. While the earliest sections of the Vedas date back to at least 1000 bce, and probably earlier, the first works classified as Vedāṅga were composed not before the sixth or seventh centuries bce, and the initial appearance of much of the classic literature of this genre is usually dated to no earlier than the fifth and fourth centuries bce.
The Vedāṅgas are those subjects that were to be studied in order to correctly understand the Vedas and perform the rituals those texts enjoin. The texts categorized as Vedāṅgas are in the form of technical treatises written in the extremely condensed, aphoristic, and mnemonic style known as sūtra (literally "thread," referring to the idea that each aphorism is woven together with the others into a whole rather than tied sequentially into a linear chain). Because of the brevity and concision of their prose style, these works require further explication on the part of a teacher or through written commentary.
Although clearly appendages to the sacred Vedas, the Vedāṅgas were among the earliest texts to be categorized as smṛti, that is, "remembered" or traditional texts passed on from teacher to pupil and ultimately traceable back to a human author. While thus differentiated from the absolutely authoritative Vedas (which were classified as "revealed" or śruti, and regarded as not being the product of human beings), the Vedāṅgas are nevertheless often treated as approximating, if not fully equaling, the status of the Vedas themselves. The Vedāṅgas are, as one scholar has said, "at the same time without and within the Veda."
The Vedas and Vedāṅgas depict a religion entirely concerned with the performance, meaning, and implications of ritual and fire sacrifice. But as opposed to the often loosely structured hymns, myths, and speculative prose characteristic of the Vedas per se, the Vedāṅgas are precise, rationally and systematically organized, and highly technical.
The subjects covered in the six primary Vedāṅgas—ritual action (kalpa), grammar (vyākaraṇa), phonology or phonetics (śikṣā), prosody (chandas), etymology (nirukta), and astrology and astronomy (jyotiṣa) —all emerged out of necessities related to correct ritual performance. In this sense it can be said that all the earliest sciences of ancient India spring from ritual (and not, as in ancient Greece, for example, from mathematics). The Kalpasūtras are directly concerned with the rules for the correct performance of the ritual acts. Grammar, phonology, prosody, and etymology originated in order to ensure the proper and exact preservation and recitation of the Vedic mantras (inherently powerful verbal spells) that were an essential part of the performance of the ritual. And the science of jyotiṣa came into being to guarantee precision in the calculations for accurately timing the occurrences of the various rituals.
The Vedāṅgas, then, are "limbs" of the Vedas in that they help one correctly preserve, understand, and apply the material in those sacred texts. It is said in later texts that grammar is the mouth of the Vedas, etymology is its ears, ritual procedure is its hands, phonetics is its nose, prosody its feet, and astronomy/astrology its eyes.
Of the six primary Vedāṅgas, phonetics or Śikṣā (literally meaning "the study" or "teaching") is usually listed first and is regarded as the most important. Because the Vedas were preserved and transmitted orally, rules for precise pronunciation were crucial for maintaining the accuracy and integrity of the texts. Phonetics emerged as the first branch of linguistics, and its categories—sound, accent, quantity, articulation, recital, and connection —were fundamental for the subsequent development of linguistic studies. Important works on phonetics were composed by Pāṇini, Nārada, Vyāsa, and others.
Vyākaraṇa ("distinction," "separation") is so termed because grammar distinguishes roots, suffixes, and prefixes: it is the science that analyzes the parts and structure of a word and the method for such divisions. It also explains how correct words and sentences are formed from basic elements so that the intended meaning is clearly expressed, and is therefore also a crucial science for both the preservation and the understanding of the Vedas. Pāṇini's Aṣṭādhyāyī (Eight chapters) is the foundational text on grammar, along with important commentaries by Kātyāyanīputra (Kātyāyana) and Patan̄jali.
Chandas, or prosody, is the Vedāṅga that gives rules for the various meters in which the Vedas are recited, and lays out their classification and characteristics. The meters are divided into fourteen types ranging from those with twenty-four letters (the gāyatrī ) to those with seventy-six. The word chandas is sometimes used a synonym for Vedic speech itself, as opposed to common language (bhāṣā).
According to tradition, there were originally some fourteen works of etymology included in the Vedāṅga designated Nirukta. Only one of these survives. The sole extant representative of the Vedāṅga dealing with etymology is the Nirukta by Yāska (dated ca. 500 bce), which is a commentary on an older work (called the Nighantu ) consisting of lists, groupings, and synonyms of words from the Ṛgveda. Yāska provides etymologies for these words and explanations of the stanzas from the Ṛgveda in which they occur. In the Nirukta, Yāska says he composed his text to insure that the correct meaning of the Veda is preserved even as people's abilities decline the further removed they are from the time of the original seers, who "heard" the Veda with direct intuitive insight. Without the aid of etymology, Yāska claims, the meaning of the Veda cannot be properly determined.
Vedic rituals were performed regularly at the various "junctures" of time: sunrise and sunset, the advent of new and full moons, the turn of the seasons, and the beginning of the new year. The ancient Indian science of astronomy developed out of the need for exact computations of the proper times for performing those rituals. Additionally, works on this subject also address what we would label astrology: the casting of horoscopes and predictions made on the basis of the location of the planets and stars, which helped the specialist adduce the most auspicious times for important events.
Finally, the Vedāṅga called Kalpa (from the Sanskrit root meaning "to prepare, design, arrange, or accomplish") consists of the rules and procedures for the actual performance of rituals. Kalpasūtras were produced by different ritual schools attached to one or another of the Vedas and are named after their mythical or semi-mythical founders (e.g., Baudhāyana, Āpastamba, etc.). A full Kalpasūtra consists of four principal components. First, there is the Śrautasūtra, which deals with the rules for performing the most complex rituals of the Vedic repertoire. Next comes the Gṛhyasūtra, which lays out the injunctions governing performance of the simpler "domestic" or household rituals. Third is the Dharmasūtra, which extends the reach of ruled, ritualized behavior to ethics and purity as they pertain to nearly every sector of daily life. Finally, a complete Kalpasūtra will also contain a Śulbasūtra that gives the rules of measurement for the construction of ritual altars. From this last component developed the Indian sciences of geometry, trigonometry, and algebra.
In addition to these six primary Vedāṅgas, four secondary "limbs" (upāṅgas) to Vedic literature are also sometimes listed: history (purāṇa), logic (nyāya), ritual exegesis (mimamsa), and teachings on religious duty (dharmaśāstra). To this list of four Vedas, six Vedāṅgas, and four Upāṅgas are added four so-called "secondary Vedas" (upavedas) —medicine (āyurveda), the science of archery (dhanurveda), musicology (gandharvaveda), and political science (arthaśāstra) —to complete the list of eighteen divisions of the literature of the "orthodox" tradition stemming from the Vedas.
For a summary of the Vedāṅgas, see Kanchi Kamkoti Peethadheeshwar, The Vedas and Vedangas, rev. ed. (Kumbakonam, India, 1988); Maurice [Moriz] Winternitz, History of Indian Literature, vol. 1 (1907; reprint, Delhi, 1981), esp. pp. 249–270; Arthur A. Macdonnell, A History of Sanskrit Literature (London, 1913); and Arthur Berriedale Keith, The Religion and Philosophy of the Veda and Upanishads (Cambridge, Mass., 1925). For particular Vedāṅgas, consult (for the Kalpasūtras) Jan Gonda, The Ritual Sūtras (Wiesbaden, Germany, 1977); (for grammar, phonetics, and etymology), Hartmut Scharfe, Grammatical Literature (Wiesbaden, Germany, 1977); and (for astronomy/astrology), David Pingree's Jyotihśāstra: Astral and Mathematical Literature (Wiesbaden, Germany, 1981).
Brian K. Smith (2005)