Skip to main content

Vedism and Brahmanism


VEDISM AND BRAHMANISM . The somewhat imprecise terms Vedism and Brahmanism refer to those forms of Hinduism that revolve primarily around the mythic vision and ritual ideologies presented by the Vedas. These terms are classifications that have been used by historians to categorize in a typological manner a variety of religious beliefs and practices in ancient and contemporary South Asia. Vedic and Brahmanic religious sensibilities are thereby distinguished from Agamic, Tantric, and sectarian forms of Hinduism, which look to a variey of non-Vedic texts as the source of religious authority. Vedism is older than Brahmanism, which developed from and remains true to the Vedic worldview but accommodated and remolded the religious ideas and practices of non-Vedic South Asian traditions.

Vedism applies more specifically to the religious ideas and expressions of the Indian branch of the Indo-Europeans who gradually entered the valley of the Indus River in successive waves in the second millennium bce. These communities regard as sacred and authoritative texts only those orally transmitted collections of poetic hymns (mantra s), ritual instructions (Brāhmaas), and some of the early philosophical speculations (rayakas and Upaniads) of the Vedic literary corpus. Together, these works are said to constitute sacred "knowledge" (veda, hence Vedism ) and are known as śruti, "revealed truth."

Brahmanism developed as the Vedic Indians moved further into the subcontinent to settle in the regions drained by the Ganges River and then southward to the tip of India. It is loosely known as Brahmanism because of the religious and legal importance it places on the brāhmaa (priestly) class of society. Brahmanism takes as sacred truth, in addition to the Veda, various law books (the Dharmaśāstras and Dharmasūtras), mythic epics (the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaa ), and a wide range of non-Vedic myths recounted in the Purāas. These texts, the earliest of which may date to the second part of the first millennium bce and the lattermost of which to the medieval period, are known as smti, "remembered truth."

Both Vedism and Brahmanism, then, accept the Veda as sacred. The difference between the two is that Brahmanism also includes doctrines and mythic themes that do not specifically derive from the Vedas and therefore is ideologically more inclusive than Vedism. Some of these ideas find expression in various ritual practices such as temple worship and the domestic ceremony known as pūjā, in the notion of a society arranged according to vocational function (vara ) and stage of life (āśrama ), in meditation and renunciatory practices, in vegetarianism and reverence for the cow, in the importance of the teacher (guru ) for transmitting the tradition, and in other non-Vedic themes that play important parts in Hindu religious life and thought.

Textual Corpus

The collection of metric and prose texts that form the Veda (or, taken individually, Vedas) is by far the largest single documentary source of archaic Indo-European religious thought. At the same time, however, this collection amply documents a particular line of intellectual development that went far beyond its archaic beginnings and gave the Veda its pivotal but never undisputed place in Indian religion and philosophy.

Though no definite dates can be assigned to the Veda or any of its parts, some of its materials, especially in the metrical texts, may be dated back to the twelfth century bce, or even earlier, when the later Indo-Aryans were still in direct contact with the Iranian branch of the Indo-European peoples. This common Indo-Iranian period is attested by linguistic, lexical, formulaic, and cultic similarities between the Veda and the Avesta (e.g., the sacred beverage, soma in the Veda and haoma in the Avesta, and the use of these beverages in the cult; the Vedic hot priest and his Avestan counterpart, zaotar ). The formation of the Veda as currently known extended over the first half of the last millennium bce, bearing witness to a gradual move from the northwest of the subcontinent, the upper Indus area, where the gveda had its original home, to the watershed between the Indus and Ganges basins and into the Ganges plain. This movement is epitomized in the story of the sacrificial fire, which was forced by means of a ritual formula to come out of the mouth of the legendary sacrificer Videgha Māthava (whose name recalls Videha, present-day Bihar); the fire then relentlessly rolled eastward from the Sarasvatī River in the west to the Sadanira, the boundary river of Videha, in the east, and finally was established even beyond that boundary (Śatapatha Brāhmaa Bengal (Vanga), however, remained, as far as the Veda is concerned, a "barbarian" country.

Apart from its antiquity, the most striking features of the Veda are its rigid codification and internal organization as well as its faithful oral transmission among specialized brahmans up to the present day. Although no decisive arguments can be adduced, the codification of the Veda may date from the middle of the first millennium bce. (This is to be distinguished from partial compilations, which are generally assumed to have already been in existence at the rise of Buddhism in the sixth century bce.) During the second half of that millennium further ancillary texts were added to the corpus.

Organization of the Veda

The primary principle of the internal organization of the Vedic corpus is strictly ritualistic, the texts being arranged according to their function with regard to the sacrificial ritual. The initial textual layer consists of formulas (mantra s)both metrical and in proseto accompany the ritual acts (karman ) and descriptions of the ritual (Brāhmaas). The latter are thus differentiated in rules regulating the ritual (karmavidhāna ) and in explanation or discussion (arthavāda; pastamba Śrautasūtra 24.1.3134). Though this primary division gives no special place to the Upaniads, the speculative extension of the Brāhmaa texts, it clearly illustrates the ritualistic divide between karman, or act, and mantra, or formula.

The repositories of the mantra s are known as the Sahitās (named after the continuous mode of recitation involving sadhi, or changes taking place at the juncture of words succeeding each other), first collected in the gveda or "Veda of the Stanzas." Though the time of its final compilation may not greatly differ from the period of the Brāhmaas, the gveda contains, generally speaking, the oldest materials. The exposition of the ritual (including the explanation of the mantra s and their use) in the Brāhmaas provides the second layer. The third layer is formed by the rayakas ("forest books") and the Upaniads. They are attached to the Brāhmaas and are composed in the same style. The rayakas, which derive their name from their having to be studied outdoors, in the wilderness (araya ) because of their supposedly dangerous or secret nature, deal with particular parts of the ritual. The Upaniads start from and often refer to the ritual but their meta-ritualistic content goes beyond and even supersedes it.

To these three layers of texts, which form the śruti (lit., "hearing"), the "revealed" tradition in the strict sense, the Kalpasūtras (kalpa, "arrangement"; sūtra, "guideline"), concisely worded manuals, must be added. These comprise the Śrautasūtrasmanuals for the śrauta (derived from the śruti ), or "solemn" ritual based on the Brāhmaasand the Smārtasūtras, summarizing the smti ("remembrance"), the secular tradition. The latter are again divided into the Ghyasūtras, manuals for the domestic ritual (gha, "house"), which exhibit a ritual close to the śrauta pattern, and the Dharmasūtras, on religious law and custom, which are at a greater distance from the śruti, though they are supposedly authorized by it.

The Kalpasūtras belong to the six Vedāgas ("members of the Veda"), ancillary branches of knowledge meant to explain the Veda and to sustain its preservation. In addition to the Kalpa, the system of ritual rules, these branches of knowledge are ikā ("phonetics"), Chandas ("meter"), Vyākaraa ("grammar"), Nirukta ("etymology"), and Jyotia ("astronomy"). While the systematic elaboration and standardization of Kalpa has the rationalistic trappings that qualify it as a "prescientific" science, astronomy and especially grammar developed into full-fledged sciences independent of the Veda.

The partly chronological division in Sahitās, Brāhmaas, rayakas, Upaniads, and Kalpasūtras is joined by a second, equally ritualistic, principle of organization running vertically through the successive layers. This division corresponds to the four priestly functions in the performance of the soma sacrifice, that is, the functions of the hot ("reciter"); the udgāt or chandoga ("cantor" or "chanter"); the adhvaryu (officiating priest), who is in charge of the ritual acts and so of the overall proceedings; and the brahman, who acts as a mainly silent overseer and corrects possible mistakes in the performance of the ritual. To each of these four functions a separate Veda is assigned, consisting of its own Sahitā, Brāhmaa, and Kalpasūtra. Thus the hot 's Veda is the gveda, from which the invitatory and offering stanzas as well as the longer recitations (śastra ) are taken. The Śāmaveda cites the texts of the gveda and their "melodies" (sāman ) that are to be chanted by the udgāt. The adhvaryu operates with the Yajurveda or "Veda of the Formulas" (yajus ). These "formulas" are defined as non-c (that is, non-gvedic), although the Sahitā contains many gvedic mantra s as well. Finally, the brahman relies, at least in theory, on the Atharvaveda, but because of his overseeing function he should also be conversant with the other three Vedas.

There are, then, four Vedas. Tradition, however, emphasizes the "Triple Veda" (trayī vidyā, "threefold sacred knowledge"), that is, gveda, Yajurveda, and Śāmaveda. The Atharvaveda was added as a fourth according to a well-known pattern based on the numbers three and four: the three "twice-born" vara s (social classes) of brāhmaas (Eng., brahmans), katriya s, and vaiśya stheir second birth being their initiation to the Vedajoined by the fourth vara of the śudra s. The pattern also represents the three aims or duties of life: dharma (religious law), artha (wealth), and kāma (sexuality)to which moka (liberation from mundane existence) is added as a fourth.

The position of the Atharvaveda as regards the other three Vedas is somewhat puzzling. The name of a legendary priest and his descendants, Atharvan is related to the Old Iranian āthravan, or fire priest, but does not refer to a specific priestly function in Vedic ritual. The relationship of the Atharvaveda with the śrauta ritual is a slight one. The connection with the brahman's function is made no earlier than in the comparatively late Brāhmaa of the Atharvaveda (Gopatha Brāhmaa 1.2.9). The contents of its Sahitā appear to be related to special rites for promoting well-being, for averting or undoing evil, for curing illness, and for harming enemies, which belong to the sphere of activity of the purohita (domestic priest or royal chaplain) rather than to the brahman' s function in the śrauta ritual. This seems also to be underlined by the fact that the Atharvaveda 's Ghyasūtra has priority over its Śrautasūtra in both age and importance. Although the Atharvaveda 's codification patterned after the "Triple Veda" is comparatively late, this does not mean that its contents are equally late in origin. Thus the so-called rice-dish sacrifice (Savayajña), though recast to parallel the soma sacrifice, may well have ancient roots. The Savayajña gives prominence to the sacrificial meal, which in the śrauta ritual is reduced to a minimum. Generally speaking, it would seem that the Atharvaveda became a repository of rites and incantations for which the fully developed śrauta system of ritual had no place anymoresuch as, for instance, the exaltation of the vrātya, the warrior-sacrificer to whom the fifteenth book of the Sahitā is devoted.

Finally, there is still a third principle subdividing the Vedic texts, namely by "schools," each having its own recension of one of the four Vedas. If such a "school" has its own version of the Sahitā it is known either as a śākhā ("branch") or as a caraa (liturgical observance). The most subdivided of the four Vedas is the Yajurveda. First, there is the division between the so-called Ka ("black") Yajurveda and Śukla ("white") Yajurveda schools. The older Black Yajurveda is characterized by alternating mantra and Brāhmaa portions in its Sahitās, while the younger White Yajurveda neatly separates the mantra s from the Brāhmaa, the celebrated Śatapatha Brāhmaa. Whereas the White Yajurveda has two closely related śākhā s (Mādhyandina and Kanva ), the Black Yajurveda shows marked differentiation between śākhā s and their subdivisions, or caraa s (the Maitrāyaī Sahitā with the Mānava and Vārāha Sūtra s; the closely related Kāhaka, whose sūtra has been lost; and the Taittirīya Sahitā, with the pastamba, Hirayakeśin, Bhāradvāja, Baudhāyana, Vaikhānasa, and Vādhūla Sūtras ).

The Sahitā of the gveda is known in only one recension but has two subdivisions, svalāyana (with the Aitareya Brāhmaa and the svalāyana Sūtra ) and Śānkhāyana (with the Śānkhāyana Brāhmaa also known as the Kauītaki Brāhmaa and the Śānkhāyana Sūtra ). The Śāmaveda boasts two śākhā s that in fact differ only minimally, the Kauthuma-Rānāyanīya and the Jaiminīya; the Brāhmaa of the latter is called Jaiminīya Brahmaa, and it is known for the richness of its mythical and legendary data. Finally, the Atharvaveda knows two śākhā s, the Saunaka and the Paippalāda.

Though scholarly attention has mostly been directed toward the gveda and the problems raised by its language, stylistics, and mythological conceptions, from the strictly Indian point of view the main interest of Vedism is in the structure and development of ritual. This is evident in the internal organization of the Vedic corpus of texts, which, as has been seen, are arranged according to the needs of the śrauta system of ritual. The elaboration and standardization of this system are, however, a late Vedic development. The division of mantra and Brāhmaa is more than a technical-ritualistic one. It represents a caesura between, on the one hand, the older state of cult and belief that forms the background of the gveda's stanzas, and on the other the standardized system of ritual that developed in the Brāhmaas and was perfected in the Sūtras. It is also to be observed that, although the standardized ritual draws liberally on the gveda as a source of metrical mantra s, only part of it is actually used in the ritual. Only the ninth of the ten books (maala s) of the gveda, which contains the hymns (sūkta ) addressed to the god Soma (in the form of the soma beverage), is directly related to the ritual, namely to the decanting and filtering of the soma (soma pavamāna ). These hymns were assembled for the purpose of the ritual in a separate collection that was added at a later date to the gveda as the ninth of its ten maala s. Otherwise, the arrangement of the gveda is not related to the later ritual. In general, this text provides few, if any, clear indications about its cultic context or about the occasions at which or for which the hymns were composed.

The gveda, then, for all its size and suggestive contents, does not allow a clear view of Vedic religion, its cult, or its beliefs, nor do the Brāhmaas, with their single-minded concentration on ritual. Non-Vedic testimonies, such as the early Buddhist scriptures, may be put to useregarding, for instance, the cult of spirits (yaksa s)but they will not suffice for a well-rounded picture. Nor does archaeology offer any reliable clues. It has not even been possible to find indubitable evidence linking the Vedic data with the preceding Indus civilization. The only source for Vedic religion is the Vedic corpus, but it can only give part of the spectrum. Moreover, one must take into account the sharp divide between the gveda and the Brāhmaas.


As regards mythology the gveda is a vast storehouse of mythic motifs that are partly taken up again and recast by the Brāhmaas in their explanation of the ritual. It would be a mistake, however, to expect a consistent mythology or a clearly structured pantheon. Individual outlines tend to be blurred and areas of activity indeterminate, whereas attributes and positions are to some extent interchangeable among the gods. The reason for the apparent indeterminateness of gvedic mythology is not to be found in the fluidity of archaic thought. In fact, the gveda bears witness to a highly developed state of verbal art. Though conventional and even formulaic, the mode of expression is characterized by great sophistication and flexibility, geared to interchangeability and conflation of images and formulations. The aim is not to arrive at a precise delineation of the deity invoked and his power, but, on the contrary, to compress several associations and layers of meaning within the bounded, metrical compass of a stanza. In this respect gvedic mythology is essentially different from the mythological statements of the Brāhmaas. The gveda works by multi-interpretable suggestion and allusion rather than by explicit statement, leaving unexpressed the inner connection of the images and meanings that are suggested or alluded to. In this way a vast or even unbounded field of symbolic relationships is evoked to enhance (and exploit) the power of the deity. Hence the indeterminacy of gvedic mythology, which is a matter of principle rather than of pristine fluidity.

This feature has given rise to F. Max Müller's well-known but misleading term henotheism, or kathenotheism, to characterize Vedic religion. Insofar as it describes the apparent tendency to provide the invoked deity with a maximum of divine associations to enhance its power, the term may still be useful. It should, however, not be taken as an intermediary stage on the way to some form of strict monotheism, nor can it serve to define gvedic religious thought. It does no more than indicate a marked feature of Vedic hymnology.

The mythological statements of the Brāhmaas, by contrast, are directly and unequivocally linked to the ritual and its details, which they are meant to explain and justify. The tersely and concisely recounted mythical and legendary episodes lack the sophisticated associativeness and multi-interpretability that characterize the gveda. Their onlyand explicitassociation is with the ritual. The many layers of meaning are reduced and systematized in three tiers referring respectively to the ritual (adhiyajña ), to the godhead (adhidaiva ), and to the person of the sacrificer (adhyātma ). Given the structure of the ritual as a collection of separate sacrifices and of each sacrifice as a lineal concatenation of clearly distinguishable acts and accompanying mantra s, the mythological statements that refer to the separate sacrifices or to the successive acts of each of them cannot, by their nature, present a consistently structured mythology and cosmology. Moreover, there are clear traces of non-Aryan themesoften revealed by non-Aryan namesthat raise the question of their whole or only partial integration. The search for an underlying unified pattern of mythic and cosmic conception will therefore to a large extent remain a matter of speculation.

Keeping in mind this caveat as well as the indeterminacy of the gveda and the ritualism of the Brāhmaas, one may now proceed to a brief survey of Vedic mythology. In accordance with the not specifically Vedic or Indian custom of expressing the idea of totality by a number, the gveda often speaks of thirty-three gods. The Brāhmaas break down this number as eight Vasus, eleven Rudras, and twelve dityas, leaving two open slots. Essentially such numbers are, however, not meant to be filled out by a complete list.


In the same way, the most important group among the gods, the dityas, is equally marked by a number, namely seven or eight (although only six are named) and later, in the Brāhmaas, twelve. They are defined as the sons of the goddess Aditi, whose name means "boundlessness." Her name has given rise to an opposite counterpart, the goddess Diti (dropping the privative a ), who later is considered the mother of the gods' enemies, the demonic daitya s, better known as asura s. The notion of a mother goddess or Magna Mater is, however, not very prominent in the Veda. The dityas are connected with light and with celestial phenomena. ditya also occurs as the name of the sun (otherwise Sūrya), and it has been proposed that the seven dityas be equated with the sun, the moon, and the five planets. On the other hand they are thought to represent various aspects of rulership or sovereignty; the first three, Varua, Mitra, and Aryaman, especially represent this capacity, whereas Bhaga ("dispenser"), Aśa ("share"), and Daka ("capability") are associated with social concepts. Some of these names, such as Mitra, Aryaman, and Bhaga, have direct correspondences in Old Iranian, but the functions associated with them differ considerably. Apart from that, the dityas as a group have been equated with the (somewhat different) Amesha Spentas in the Avesta.

The foremost among the dityasand at the same time the most problematicis Varua. His name is, not without doubts, connected with the Greek Ouranos. He is a sovereign god, often characterized as samrāj, establishing and maintaining universal order, punishing transgressions, and binding the sinner with his ties. In this perspective one can also place his connection with ta (cosmic truth) and guardianship of the oath as well as with the waters, which are the abode of ta. At the same time Varua exhibits a sinister and dark side, especially in his opposition to the warrior god Indra, who appears to have robbed Varua of his virility and dethroned him (gveda 4.42; 10.124). In this connection Varua's qualification as an asura should be mentioned. Being preeminently an asura, a lordly being, he can be considered as the Vedic counterpart to the Avestan Ahura Mazda, with whom he shares the connection with rta (OIran., asha ). Varua's asura quality would seem to oppose him to the deva s, or heavenly gods, even though the deva/asura opposition is less pronounced in the gveda than it is in the Brāhmaas. The problem Varua presents is his two-sidedness. As the first among the dityas he is a deva, while at the same time he is prominent as an asura.

Varua often occurs coupled with another ditya, Mitra, who (in accordance with his name) represents contract and alliance. In the Veda he remains somewhat in the background. In the Avesta, however, he is more prominent and receives a fuller treatment; he is also a warrior and is associated with heaven and the sun. In contradistinction to the gveda, the Brāhmaas emphasize an opposition between Mitra and Varua, the former being equated with the daylight, the latter with the night. The third ditya, Aryaman, is concerned with marriage and hospitality.


The god most often encountered is the warrior god Indra, who receives the most elaborate mythological treatment of all the Vedic gods. Although he does not belong to the dityas he is mentioned at least once as the fourth ditya (gveda 8.52.7), so as to connect him with the three first, and sovereign, deities among the dityas. A few times in the gveda he is called an asura, as is Varua. His appearance, strength, and liberality, and his prowess in battle, in drinking soma (sometimes obtained forcibly), and, later, in amorous venturesas well as his chariot, his horses, and his weapon, the vajra (the thunderbolt)receive ample attention. He is, however, not only a warrior and divine prototype of the katriya or rājanya: He also exhibits priestly or Brahmanic traits and as such is related to Bhaspati, or Brāhmaaspati (lord of the greatness or of the brahman ), who is credited with some of the heroic deeds usually ascribed to Indra. (Hanns-Peter Schmidt has even argued that Bhaspati may originally have been an epithet of Indra. Incidentally, this should warn against setting too early a date for the separation of the four vara s as closed, mutually exclusive status groupings.)

Indra's most vaunted deeds are the liberation of the waters by killing the monster Vtra ("obstruction")hence his epithet Vtrahan, which equates him with the Avestan Verethraghnaand the freeing of the cows (metaphorically, the heavenly lights) from the Vala cave or from the cave where the Pais hid their cattle. In the Vala episode he is associated with the priestly Angirases, who assist him by their chanting in opening the cave or enclosure. Here, Indra's relationship, or rather overlap, with Bhaspati/Brāhmaaspati is most clear.

Maruts and Vāyu

Indra's usual companions and warband are the Maruts, the sons of Pśni, the spotted cow. They are depicted as chariot fighters and support Indra in the Vtra battle, but they also have a priestly quality as bardic chanters. In a naturalistic perspective the Maruts are the violent storm gods, just as Indra's weapon, the vajra, is the thunderbolt. As such, the Maruts are akin to Vāyu ("wind"). Equally a charioteer and associated with Indra, Vāyu is linked with the Maruts. His pneumatic character seems to connect him with ancient initiation rites as well as with the later, Upaniadic speculations on the life breath, or prāa.


As a dragon slayer Indra has a minor double in Trita ("the third") Aptya ("the aquatic one" [?]), who is equally credited with slaying Vtra and Vala. These exploits, however, burden him, like Indra, with the guilt of manslaughter, which makes Trita into a kind of scapegoat. In the Brāhmaas he is identified with Agni, the fire, who hides from his cruel duty as the sacrificial fire. Trita is also known to the Avesta in a double form, as Thraetaona (Pers., Farīdūn) thwya, the slayer of the dragon Azhi Dahāka, and as Thrita, the father of Kereśāspa, equally a dragon slayer. Trita, and not Indra, may have been the original hero of the dragon fight.


The twin Aśvins ("possessing horses"), or, by their original name, the Nāsatyas, are chariot warriorsthe chariot being typically manned by a pair, the driver and the fighterconveying Sūrya, the bride of the sun. Equally, they are associated with the goddess Uas, or Dawn. They obtain the secret of the cultic surā beverage (distilled from grain) from the demon Namuci and honey mead (madhu ) from the horse-headed Dadhyañc. In this connection they are also known for their qualities as healers and miracle workers.


A different type of warrior is the terrible archer Rudra ("the red one," or "the howler"), who inhabits the mountains and the wilderness. He is identified with the destructive, uncontrolled aspect of Agni, the fire. Generally, Rudra is surrounded by fear and taboo. In the ritual he typically receives the remainder of the oblation, thus being set apart from the gods and "bought off." The group of Rudrastheir later standard number is elevenare identified with the Maruts, Rudra being said to be their father. In post-Vedic religion Rudra developed into the transcendent god Śiva.


Another Vedic god who was destined for post-Vedic prominence is Viu, who in many ways became a counterpart to Śiva. In the Vedic hymns Viu is a minor figure, associated with Indra in the Vtra battle. In the Brāhmaas he is identified with the institution of sacrifice. His characteristic deed, however, is the feat of crossing, measuring out, or conquering the universe by his three steps. This feat may be linked with his solar (and, possibly, also phallic) character as also with his later association with the axis mundi. As against the fearsome Rudra-Śiva, who resides outside human society, the consistently benevolent Viu takes up his position in the center of the universe and in the middle of the settled world, encompassing and organizing the universe with his three steps.


The pastoral Pūan is the guardian of the roads, a trait that should probably be viewed against the background of the movement of cattle. The furthering of prosperity to which his name (from pu, "prosper") refers is primarily concerned with cattle (especially cows), the epitome of wealth. His guardianship of the roads easily connects Pūan with the path of the sun, which leads from heaven to earth. In this respect he may be viewed as a solar deity.


From the ritualistic point of view the most important deities are Agni, the fire, and Soma, the deified cultic beverage and draft of immortality (amta ). In cosmic perspective they represent the fiery and watery elements. As the sacrificial fire, Agni is produced with the help of two special pieces of wood known as the "two arai s" that are manipulated in a way explicitly imitating the sexual act. The domestic fire, on the other hand, is the fire used in the marriage ritual and so is derived from the bride's paternal home. This notion should be a warning to any misunderstandings regarding the "ancestral fire"; insofar as it is ancestral it is transmitted in the female line. Moreover, the upkeep of the actual domestic fire ends with the death of the householder, when it is used for the last time at his cremation. The fireboth domestic and sacrificialis discontinuous, its transmission broken and its possession uncertain. The mythology of Agni is replete with his fleeing and hiding in plants or trees but especially in the waters, illustrating the basic though paradoxical interrelationship between the watery and fiery elements. This paradox is further indicated by one of the names for Agni, Apā Napāt ("son of the waters").

Time and again Agni has to be retrieved from his hiding places, that is, the fire must be obtained from elsewhere, from other people. Even though the "two arai s" would, in principle, ensure the undisturbed possession of the fire, which then can be produced at will after a period of inactivity or hiding when it has been symbolically taken up in the sacrificer's person, these drilling sticks are not an ancestral heirloom, but are obtained from the adhvaryu priest (fittingly, he is rewarded with a gift when fire is produced). Less ritualistically, the fire appears to be obtained by force or theft, as occasionally shown in the ritual texts. Conversely, the śrauta ritual for setting up the sacrificial fires (agnyād-hāna) obviously meant to have only one performance, whose effects were permanentcan be repeated after some, not clearly specified, mishap. This seems to point in the same direction: The fire may have been robbed or lost as the result of a hostile encounter. Although the Vedic myth of Mātariśvan ("swelling in the mother"[?], probably a name of Agni), who brings the fire to the human world, does not mention agonistic proceedings, the ritual seems to recall the well-known Indo-European myth of the theft of the heavenly fire.

On the other hand the fire is identified with the person of its possessor in a way that suggests the notion of an "external soul." It defines the household and its master; in the sacrificial ritual it leads the triumphant procession to the sacrificial hearth (āhavanīya ), where it is to be installed. In this latter triumphal aspect Agni is a victorious warrior moving about on his chariot and bringing the gods to the sacrifice or conveying the offerings to them as well as receiving offerings himself. In short, he is the linchpin of the universe viewed as sacrificial process. Although the śrauta ritual identifies Agni with the hot priest, it would seem that originally this functionary is no other than the sacrificer striving to prevail over other sacrificers and their fires, as is still noticeable in the rite of the Pravara, the "election" of the hot, immediately preceding the burnt offerings.

Both mythologically and ritually, then, the relationship of humans with Agni, dispersed throughout many separate (and competing) fires as well as regularly disappearing, is critical and insecure. In his "terrible" (ghora ) form, as Rudra, he may even endanger the sacrificer's life.


Soma (Avestan, haoma ) is predominantly the plant from which the cultic beverage is prepared as well as the beverage itself. Like the fire, Agni, it has to be won or obtained from elsewhere. "The one [Agni] Matarisvan brought from heaven, the other [Soma] the eagle [śyena ] took by force from the mountain" (gveda 1.93.6). In the Brāhmaas this bird is identified with the gāyatrī, which, having three eight-syllable feet, is the shortest of the Sanskrit meters and is emblematic of chant and recitation. The mountain where the soma plant grows is named Mūjavat. The main distinguishing feature of soma is that it is to be won or brought from the wilderness, far away from the settled world. In the ritual the stalks of the soma plant are bought from an outsider in exchange for a cow, after which the soma seller is beaten and chased. This latter feature, as well as other less explicit details, suggests that behind the trading lies a contest in which the seller represents the guardians of the soma, the heavenly Gandharvas.

Another way of winning the soma or rather the soma draftis by forcibly obtaining access to another's soma sacrifice. Though the ritual does not account for this it is a well-known mythical theme. Thus Indra robs Tva and drinks the soma from his ritual vessels. In another myth Indra slays Tva's son, the three-headed monster Viśvarūpa, at the sacrifice in order to obtain the soma draft. Or again, Indra obtains the soma as well as Agniby slaying Vtra, who is holding them within himself.

As a god, Soma rules over the waters and their cosmic circulation. As such he takes up a central position in the universe, parallel to that of Agni, with whom Soma is often coupled as a dual divinity in the ritual texts. Significantly the gveda associates him with the sun, illustrating once more the solIārity of the fiery and the watery elements.

As in the case of Agni, Soma's relationship with man (i. e., winning him or losing him) is of crucial importance. However, unlike Agni, he is not identified with the sacrificer, but remains external to him. He is "the king" par excellence, ceremonially received as such on the place of sacrifice and often referred to by this title alone in the ritual manuals. This may perhaps explain why, whereas the fire is simply brought from heaven and the evidence for force or stealth is reduced to scattered and fragmentary indications, conflict and violence are involved in winning the soma. If the fire, as the sacrificer's "external soul," were to be the subject of an equally open direct conflict, the consequences would be disastrous: Just how disastrous can be seen upon considering the position of Soma, "the king." After his reception, he is pressedthat is, "killed." Having been prepared, sacrificed, and consumed, Soma is, in short, immolated. Obviously, this rules out the direct identification with the sacrificer. Such an identification is, however, still discernible, but shrouded in mystery as a dark, undeclared truth. Thus, when the royal sacrificer of the Rājasūya is proclaimed king, the priests inaudibly add "Soma is our king."

The original mystery of the sacrificer's immolation has been preserved in a different and innocuous form in the ritualistic mythology of the Brāhmaas, where the sacrificer is stereotypically identified with Prajāpati, the "lord" (pati ) of "beings" (prajā ). One of the many pati gods, he makes a fleeting appearance in the late tenth book of the gveda but reaches overall preeminence in the Brāhmaas. This Prajāpati, then, is the epitome of sacrifice, being at once the sacrificer and sacrificial victim. By that time, however, the ritual had developed into a closed, autonomous system that is ideally parallel to but not directly linked with the reality of the sacrificer's actual life and death.

A particularly knotty problem is the original identity of the soma plant. From the texts it appears that it must be a plant, often thought to be a creeper, with juicy stalks delivering the soma juice when crushed. R. Gordon Wasson's seductively argued theory of soma as the "divine mushroom of immortality," specifically fly agaric, is not generally accepted. The main difficulty is that fly agaric is not indigenous to the geographical area of the gveda. But if Wasson is right, this would mean that the elaborate imagery of the soma hymns would revolve around a substance no longer used or even known. Given the conventional nature of Vedic hymnology, this is certainly not impossible. The stalks actually used in the ritual appear anyway to be a substitute for the lost original.

As to the god Soma's celestial nature and abode the question of whether he represents the sun or the moon was at one time hotly debated. Though regularly associated with the sun in the gveda, Soma is usually identified with the moon in the Brāhmaas. The waxing and waning of the moon easily lend themselves to serve as an expression of the cosmic processes of growth, death, and renewal over which Soma presides. This led Alf Hillebrandt to postulate a lunar origin and character for Soma, which he expanded into a mythology involving other gods as well. This interpretation has, however, not been generally accepted, nor has Hermann Lommel's suggestion that Soma's identification with the moon would have come about by a restructuring under external, non-Aryan influences found favor. When the naturalistic and celestial interpretation of Vedic mythology receded in favor of more sociologically, cosmogonically, or ritually oriented views, the question of the lunar as opposed to the solar interpretation slipped into the background. The naturalistic viewpoint has once again gained favor, and the debate may in some form or other be reopened. At any rate the central point of Soma's mythology is the circulation of the cosmic waters holding the ambrosia (amta ) and linked with the alternation of life and death.

Female deities

As mothers, sisters, wives, and lovers of the gods, female deities receive frequent mention, but, with the exception of Uas (Dawn), they remain diffuse, lacking in profile and to a high degree interchangeable with one another.

First there are are the deified (primordial) waters, pa (plural of ap, water), which hold the germ of life and are the abode or hiding place of Agni (Fire), the "son of the waters" (Apā Napāt). As has been seen, they are also associated with Soma. Their most direct manifestation is formed by the rivers, especially those of the Punjab, such as the Sindhu (grammatically both masculine and feminine), also called Indus, and its tributaries. Mythologically the most important of them is the Sarasvatī, in the Brāhmaas identified with the goddess Vāc (Speech), especially in connection with the hymnic or ritual utterance. Aditi, the mother of the dityas, has already been mentioned. The Brāhmaas explain the latter's birth as the result of Aditi's eating the remainder of the rice mess (odana ) prepared and offered by her to the gods. Other female deities are Śrī (Luster), Puradhi (Bounty), and Iā, or Iā (Food, both as offering and as sacrificial meal).

The most individualized of the goddesses is Uas (Dawn). She is depicted as a nubile, eternally young woman, wife or lover of the sun and companion of the Aśvins. Her most important feature is her bounty and her association with the gift, especially the dakiā, the gift to the priests at the sacrifice. The Brāhmaas transfer the incest motif of the otherwise featureless sky god, Dyaus, and his daughter to Prajāpati, father of all and epitome of sacrifice, and Uas. Prajāpati is then chastised by the archer Rudra who shoots an arrow at him; the wound is represented by a small piece from the offering cake, "Rudra's portion," which is, because of its potency, given to the brahman priest to eat. It is striking that Uas, notwithstanding her clear delineation and the hymns addressed to her, does not have a part in the sacrificial cult.


Finally, mention must be made of a separate class of divine beings, the Ancestors (pitara, "the fathers"). To them belong the is, the seers to whom the gvedic hymns are ascribed. Stereotypically the ancestors form a group of seven (lsuch as the dityas) to which an eighth, Agastya, is added. They are the eponyms of the gotra s (brahman lineages) systematically listed in the Pravara ("election") rite in the śrauta sacrifice where the names of the is defining the sacrificer's gotra are mentioned.

Otherwise, the householder's lineage is defined by the last three ancestorsfather, grandfather, great-grandfatherwho receive offerings of water and rice balls (pia s) in both the domestic (ghya ) and the solemn (śrauta ) ritual. The feature distinguishing the cult of the ancestors from that of the gods is the use of the left hand; the right hand is used in the cult of the gods. Thus, though regularly associated with the gods and their deeds, the pitara are sharply differentiated from them. Similarly, the "way of the fathers" (pityāna ) is distinguished from the "way of the gods" (devayāna ), the first "way" being associated with the moon and the second with the sun.


Another set of ideas regarding the world of the dead focuses on Yama and his twin sister Yamī (yama, "twin"). Also known in Old Iranian mythology, they form the primordial pair. The gveda knows, but apparently rejects, their incest: In a dialogue hymn (gveda 10.10) Yama refuses to respond to Yamī's entreaties. Yama is the first mortal and, in ancient Iran, the first king. In India his kingship is reserved for his righteous rule over the world of the dead, which he is the first to enter. In the gveda he is the son of Vivasvat, a solar figure ("the wide-shining") whom the Brāhmaas make into an ditya. Although it is only in later Hinduism that Yama is equated with Dharmaraja, the king of the universal order, the idea underlying this notion does not seem to be alien to the Veda.

Interpretations of Vedic mythology

The interpretation of the Vedic mythological data has, in the last hundred years or so, variously emphasized naturalistic, ritualistic, and sociological approaches. Abel Henri Joseph Bergaigne's La religion védique d'après les hymnes du gveda was the first and, thus far, unequaled attempt at a unitary synthesis combining both the naturalistic and ritualistic viewpoints. The mythical motifs are classified on two levels: on the one hand the celestial processes of light and darkness, on the other the atmospheric phenomena (clouds, rain, lightning) parallel to the celestial level. Both levels are further characterized by the opposition and interaction of male and female elements. The natural processes structured in this way are then seen as reflected in the cult. Bergaigne has been criticized for his allegorical schematism and his tendency to view the gveda exclusively in terms of its rhetorics. But his lasting achievement is in his systematic textual approach, involving a rigorous attention to the phraseology and its formulaic aspects. On this basis, modified by Hermann Oldenberg, it has also been possible to obtain a clearer view of the formation of the gveda. In general, Bergaigne can be considered the founder of Vedic philology, which then is brought to full growth by Hermann Oldenberg.

The sociological approach has been forcefully represented by Georges Dumézil, who stresses the three functions of sovereignty, both spiritual and worldly (Varua as against Mitra), physical force (exemplified by Indra), and fecundity or productivity (represented by the Aśvins and other groups of gods, such as the Vasus, in association with female divinities). The three functions or principles are at the same time seen as the (Indo-European) ideology governing a tripartite social organization exemplified by the three "Aryan" or "twiceborn" vara s (classes): brāhmaa s, katriya s, and vaiśya s. The problem with the social and ideological tripartition is that the number three, which is indeed strikingly frequent, is usually associated with either the number twothe third forming a link or intermediaryor four, when the fourth is an indeterminate or opposite element rounding out the whole (thus the three vara s are supplemented by a fourth, the śudra vara; compare also such configurations as seven or eight dityas). The theory of the three functions is, however, not primarily directed at the interpretation of Vedic (and later, epic) mythology as such, but at comparative Indo-European mythologya field of study revived and stimulated by Dumézil's numerous and erudite publications.

Another approach, which is reminiscent of Bergaigne's cosmological comprehensiveness but is not dependent on naturalistic or ritualistic viewpoints, singles out cosmogony as the key to "the basic concept of Vedic religion." The cosmogonic approach, propounded by F. B. J. Kuiper, has been influenced by earlier work (in the 1930s) of Dutch structuralist scholars on Indonesian religion and society; it is an approach in which psychoanalytic insights also are heuristically brought to bear on cosmogonic thought. In this perspective, the central feature of Vedic cosmogony and of the world it brought about is the sudden breakup of the undifferentiated primeval unity of the waters into a dualistic cosmos. The cause of this dramatic change was Indra's heroic deed. The asura s, who were associated with the primeval state of affairs, are defeated and replaced by the "younger" deva s. Henceforth, the dualistic cosmos of upper and nether worldrent apart by Indrais determined by the conflict of deva s and asura s, which periodically breaks out again at the joints of the time cycle (as at the New Year) and is reenacted in verbal and other contests, particularly chariot races. In this scheme, the primordial unity is guaranteed by Viu, who, far from being a minor figure in the gveda as is usually assumed, transcends the conflict by his third step. The cosmogonic exegesis entails complex problems of textual analysis. Thus the opposition between deva s and asura s, though clear and systematic in the Brāhmaas, is far from unambiguous in the gveda. The main problem is the nature of Varua, an asura who belongs equally to the deva s. In Kuiper's view Varua went over to the victorious deva s (keeping a hidden allegiance to the asura s), much as Agni and Soma left Vtra for Indra.

Whether cosmogony can deliver a basic or unitary concept underlying Vedic religion, or at least the Veda as known to the modern scholar, is of course debatable. One may even doubt whether such a concept did indeed exist. At any rate the metaphorical language of the hymns, with its tendency to pack various meanings and images in a single suggestive stanza while leaving the connecting idea or concept unexpressed, makes it particularly hard to isolate and define such a basic concept.

There can, however, be no doubt about the importance attached to Indra's cosmogonic battle, if the number of references both in the hymns and in the prose texts is taken as a criterion. More generally, competition, conflict, and combat appear to permeate the Vedic world. If the gods are bountiful or the human patrons munificent, the point is more often than not that the bounty and munificence should not go to the opponent. In the Brāhmaas conflict is stereotyped as the perennial struggle between deva s and asura s, but conflict does not stop there. The deva s are also competing (often by running chariot races) or fighting among themselves. The hostile tension between Indra and his followers, the Maruts, that is noticeable in some hymnic passages is crudely expressed in the Brāhmaas as Indra plundering the Maruts. In the ritual texts the bhātvya (rival kinsman), or the dviat (the foe), is all but ubiquitous. There clearly is the idea of a stable unalterable orderoften associated with the unforgiving rule of Varuabut this order is destabilized from within by the dualism of conflict for the goods of life. These goods, known under various, mostly indeterminate, all-encompassing terms, are mythologically luminous and celestial in nature and are associated with the waters. Thus, for instance, Indra's freeing Agni and Soma, the fire and the waters, from Vtra.

The "real life" substratum of the goods of life is cattle, especially cows, which then are transformed into theriomorph divinities (as, for instance, Pśni, the mother of the Maruts). In this connection the complex of female deities seems to be particularly important. Thus Uas is directly associated with the cow given as dakiā (gift to the priests), and the soma cow (the price for which the soma is traded) is addressed (among other names) as Dakiā (the deified gift cow), Aditi "facing both ways" (ubhataśīrī ), Rudrā (feminine form of Rudra), and dityā (belonging to Aditi); her footprint is that of Iā. Especially suggestive is the double-headed Aditi: She is reminiscent of the Brāhmaa motif of the rejected and therefore angered personification of the dakiā threateningly standing between the two parties of the dityas and the Agirasas (a clan of ancient fire priests, especially associated with the Atharvaveda but here identified with the asura s); the two parties soothingly try to lure her, now identified with the goddess Vāc (Speech), each to his own side (Śatapatha Brāhmaa The complex of female deities, then, are intimately connected with the cows (i. e., the goods of life) for which the conflicting parties contend.

This may explain the rather indeterminate nature of the female deities. They are the movable stakes in the ever-repeated contest. As such they have no fixed place or allegiance but keep shifting between the contending parties, dividing and connecting them. In this way it can perhaps also be understood that Uas (Dawn), though profusely eulogized, does not receive a sacrificial cult: Standing for the bounty spent, contended for, distributed, and consumed, she islike Iā, the sacrificial mealnot a recipient but the gift itself.

As party to the conflict the asura s are originally not so much demoniacal opponents and spoilers but rather settled rulers and holders of the goods of life. They are being despoiled by the aggressive wandering deva warriors led by Indra, who aspire to the status of settled lords. As the Śatapatha Brāhmaa has it in a lapidary but probably ancient phrase: "The deva s drove about on wheels, the asura s sat in their halls" (Śatapatha Brāhmaa But eventually the deva s prevail over the asura s, and that is why the "moving-about warrior" (yāyāvara ) holds sway over the settled people (kemya ), as a parallel passage explains (Taittirīya Sahitā Similarly, an isolated but telling rule recommends the would-be sacrificer who is going to set up his śrauta fires to take his cooking fire (dakiāgni, lit., "southern fire") from the house of a man of substance (pua ) who is "like an asura " (asura iva; Kāhaka Sahitā 8.12; cf. pastamba Śrautasūtra 5.14.1).

This does not mean that the world of the gods is modeled after human society, but rather that there is no sharp dividing line separating them. The worlds of gods and humans smoothly blend into each other, forming a universe permeated by the divine and the sacral. If Indra's heroic warrior deed established the cosmic order, it is an order of perennial conflict over the possession and the redistribution of the goods of lifea conflict in which gods and men equally take partand the outcome is open to reversal at the next turn. This may explain the fact, usually considered a secondary extension, that Indra is in a few gvedic passages called asura.

The arena where the conflict was fought out was the microcosm of the place of sacrifice. The central institution that regulated and contained conflict was sacrifice (yajña ). Though the śrauta ritual has no place for the enemy it does contain many mock contests, prominent among them verbal contests (brahmodya ) and chariot races. The Brāhmaas do not tire of referring to enemies, and the explanatory passages continually link the sacrificial ritual and its details with the fights of deva s and asura s, while the place of sacrifice is made the battleground.

Though researchers are ill-informed about the cultic background of the hymns, which may have known a great variety of concepts and forms, sacrifice, especially the soma sacrifice, clearly must have been of overwhelming importance. As the gveda Sahitā (1.164.50 and 10.90.16) says in an enigmatically involute statement: "With sacrifice the gods sacrificed sacrifice, these were the 'first ordinances' (dharmāi prathamāni )." The second passage concludes the hymn celebrating the sacrifice of the purua, the cosmic man, out of whose immolated body the ordered universe, including the four varas, was created. Although this cosmogonic sacrifice recalls Indra's Vtra-slaying, there is no reference to a fight or contest. Rather, it suggests the "monistic" form of the śrauta sacrifice propounded by the Brāhmaas, mythologically represented by Prajāpati, who creates the world by sacrificing himself. However, judging by the explanations in the Brāhmaas as well as by many features of the śrauta ritual itself, the form of the sacrifice preceding the one taught by them appears to have been characterized by a dualistic and agonistic structure.

The dualistic character is already implied in Paul Thieme's fundamental observation that the śrauta sacrifice is in all its details characterized as a guest reception, the sacrificer being the host. The guests at the sacrificial feast are not only the gods but equally the priestly participants who drink the soma and partake of the sacrificial food and who are identified with gods. The dualism of hosts and guests is clearly marked by tension and competition. Thus the dityas and the Agiraseswho have been seen already in their (verbal) contest over the dakiā bountycompeted over the honor of inviting the other party to their own sacrifice. First the Agirases invite the dityas, but the latter manage to be "one up." Devising an equally important sacrificial ritual that can be performed on short term before the time set by the Agirases, the dityas invite the latter and win out (Aitareya Brāhmaa 6.34).

Apparently, being invited to a sacrifice is a challenge that one cannot honorably refuse. On the other hand, not being invited is a dishonor. And so uninvited guests force their way in to obtain or rather to contend for their share, as did the Śyāparas at the sacrifice performed by Viśvantara Sauademana (Aitareya Brāhmaa 7.27), or as did Indra at Tva's, where Indra even killed Viśvarūpa, Tva's son. It is this dualistic and agonistic form of sacrifice that the ritualists of the Brāhmaas and the Sūtras reformed and turned into the rigidly "monistic" system of ritual that is the apogee of Vedism.


The most striking feature of Vedic ritual is the thoroughly systematic nature of its structure and textual presentation. Whereas the Brāhmaas still show in many ways, but especially in the arthavāda discussions, traces of the formative process and sometimes explicitly mention former practices as against the new rules, the Sūtras, or "guidelines," are fully systematized to the extent of stating a set of "meta-rules" (paribhāā ) for the proper interpretation and handling of the ritual prescripts. This systematic character, definitively clarified by Willem Caland, caused Oldenberg to speak of "prescientific science" and Sylvan Lévi of "doctrine." Frits Staal has again called attention to what he considers to be the ancient Indian "science of ritual" as a system of "rule-governed activity" per se.

The ritual system

In the first place, there is the principle of the unity of act and formula. Unless stated otherwise each act is accompanied by a formula. The system is then built up in the way of nesting units, simpler acts being integrated to form ever more intricate complexes. The basic sacrificial unit is the pouring of a small portion of the oblational substancemilk, ghee (clarified butter), cake, gruel, meat, or soma into the offering fire. This smallest unit, indicated by the verb juhoti ("he pours"), occurs as a separate act in all yajña s, but it is also an integral part of a more complex sacrificial act. The simple pouring is performed by only one person, usually the adhvaryu, but the more complicated form requires the cooperation of several priests. While standing at the offering fire the adhvaryu calls out to the āgnīdhra, "ośrāvaya" ("let there be hearing"), and the latter answers with "Astu śraua" ("be it, one should hear"); then it is again the turn of the adhvaryu, who now calls on the hot to recite the offering verse (yājyā ). The verse begins with the name of the god to whom the oblation is addressed and is followed by the instruction to "worship" (yaja ), that is, to recite the appropriate verse; the hot complies, prefixing the words ye yajāmahe ("we who worship," also known from Old Iranian) and ending with the word vaua, at which the adhvaryu pours the oblation in the fire and the sacrificial patron (yajamāna ) pronounces the tyāga ("abandonment"): "for [name of the god addressed], not for me."

This scheme, indicated by the verb yajati ("he [i. e., the hot] worships"), is the one used in the standard ghee libations preceding and following the main offering (pradhāna ) in the vegetal sacrifices. In the case of the main offering the scheme is enlarged by a preceding invitatory verse (anuvākyā or puronuvākyā ) to be recited by the hot, who is called upon by the adhvaryu to do so. The same scheme is then further elaborated in the animal sacrifice by the participation of one of the hot 's assistants, the maitrāvarua, who relays to the hot the adhvaryu's call for the anuvākyā and yājyā verse. In the soma sacrifice this complex is further enlarged by the chanting of the stotra ("laud," from the verb stu, "to praise"), which is the task of the udgāt and his assistants, and the śastra (recitation) of the hot, which follows the libation and the drinking of the soma by the participants. In all this the basic sacrificial act remains the libation in the offering fire.

This summary description of the basic sacrificial act and its enlargement cannot do justice to the intricate detail of the rules that, apart from the sacrificial act itself, also cover the no less complicated preparatory actstaking the vow, choosing the priests, collecting the ingredients and implements (sabhāra ), arranging the place of sacrifice, readying the fires, preparing the oblational substance (havis ), its consumption and disposal, the dakiās as well as the concluding phase. But the brief summary adequately illustrates the systematic buildup of the ritual. Each sacrifice consists of a lineal succession of such standardized units of act and formula, primarily the basic sacrificial act with or without its extensions. The alignment of acts again shows the nesting principle by boxing in a unit on both sides by two other mutually connected or similar units, as for instance is the case of the main offering (pradhāna ), which is preceded by the "fore-offerings" (prayāja ), and followed by the "after-offerings" (anuyāja ). In this way a complicated concatenation is achieved spanning the whole of the sacrifice, its beginning and conclusion, mirroring each other so as to enclose the whole.

The same nesting principle governs the hierarchical taxonomy of types of sacrifices, the simpler types being incorporated in the more complicated ones. The simplest type of sacrifice is the Agnihota, the evening and morning offering of boiled milk. It is essentially the basic sacrificial act of the juhoti type, requiring only the service of the adhvaryu. More complicated is the ii (from the verb yaj, "to worship"), a vegetal sacrifice of one or more cakes (purodāsa ), cereal boiled with butter and milk (caru ), or a dish of coagulated milk (sānāyya ). It involves the taking out, husking, and grinding of the grain, preparing the dough, baking the cake (on a specified number of potsherds heated on the embers), and dividing it into portions to be distributed to the deity and among the sacrificer and his priests. Moreover, before the main offerings are made, the sacrificial fire is fueled with pieces of wood (samidh ). The hot recites a verse (sāmidhenī) as the adhvaryu places each samidh as an offering into the fire.

This series of sacrificial acts is then followed by the pravara ("election") of hot and adhvaryu, in which the sacrificer's ancestral names are mentioned, and finally the main offerings are made according to the yajāti scheme. Of course, separate juhoti offerings are equally part of the ii ritual. A more complicated version of this type of sacrifice requires four priests: apart from the adhvaryu, the hot, the āgnīdhra (counted with the adhvaryu, but as to his function associated with the hot ), and the brahman.

The next type, the paśubandha ("binding the animal victim"), or animal sacrifice, incorporates the ii. The acts concerned with the cake offering (paśu-puroāśa ) are neatly intertwined with those of the animal sacrifice proper. Two more priests are added: the maitravarua, who is associated with the hot, and the pratiprasthatr, who assists the adhvaryu.

The most complicated type is the soma sacrifice, which incorporates both ii s and paśubandha s. Its distinctive liturgical feature is the extensive use of the Śāmaveda, practically absent in the other sacrifices, for the chanted "lauds" (stotra ), while the soma ritual proper is intertwined with an animal sacrifice. This involves the services of four specialized chanters (chandoga ) led by the udgāt. Altogether the soma sacrifice needs sixteen or, according to some sūtra s, seventeen priests, including the previously mentioned ones, divided into four groups according to the four Vedas: four adhvaryu priests (Yajurveda ), four hotraka s (gveda ), four chandoga s (Śāmaveda ), and four in the brahman's group (Atharvaveda ); the seventeenth, the sadasya, is assigned to the brahman. At the same time, however, seven, instead of only four, of these priests are counted as hotraka s, six of whom are actually charged with śastra recitations from the gveda.

In the śrauta system of ritual the ii in the form of the fortnightly New and Full Moon sacrifices (Darśapūr-amāsa ), the paśubandha and the one-day soma sacrifice known as Agnioma ("liturgy of Agni") form the basic paradigms, or prakti. These prakti s can then be modified mainly as to the sacrificial substance and the deity or deities addressed (such a modification is known as vikti ). The modified part therefore is primarily the pradhāna offering(s) involving (apart from differences in the sacrificial substances used) different invitations and offering verses. The rest of the ritual, the aga s (members) or tantra ("the warp," the sacrifice regularly being said to be woven), remains, but for a few minor adaptations, essentially unchanged. Thus a particular sacrifice is said to be characterized by three criteria: dravya (sacrificial substance), devatā (deity, or deities, first addressed at the beginning when the sacrificial substance is taken out), and tyāga (the sacrificer's "abandonment" formula, again specifying the deity after the offering; cf. Kātyāyana Śrautasūtra 1.2.2).

Furthermore, sacrifices can be strung together either in a continuous series (ayana, "course") or in periodical clusters. The latter is the case, for instance, with the fortnightly New and Full Moon sacrifice (comprising two main offerings within the same tantra ) or with the seasonal Four Month sacrifices, which are essentially clusters of ii- type offerings at the beginning of a four-month period. The soma sacrifice in particular has lent itself to such strings, which may stretch over a number of years (theoretically even a hundred years). Although a prakti form, the Agnioma lasts only one day (apart from the preparatory days) and as such is an ekāha; there are strings of up to twelve days known as ahīna. A twelve-day series can be performed either as anahīna or a sattra ("session"). The difference is that at a sattra there is not a sacrificer with his sixteen (or seventeen) priests but all the participants are homogenized into a single band of sacrificers who have put together their sacrificial fires, while at the same time each performs the task of a particular priest. Their leader is then called the ghapati ("master of the house"). The modifications that are needed make the twelve-day sattra into the prakti for all other, longer sattras, while the yearlong sattra or gavām ayana ("course of the cows") is again the model for all other sattra s within the duration of a year or longer.

The feature by which the soma sacrifices are usually distinguished, however, concerns the arrangements of the stotra s and śastra s. The stotra s involve intricate rules regarding the formation of the different standardized numbers of chanted units (stotriyā ), composed of a group of two or three gvedic stanzas. These numerical arrangements are known as stoma ("liturgy"), which, like stotra, derives from the root stu.

Soma sacrifice

The soma sacrifice is the most important as well as the most intricate of the śrauta rituals. Its basic paradigm, the Agnioma, consists of an elaborate concatenation of sacrifices spanning five days and involving a whole pantheon. The first day is marked by the consecratory bath (dīkā ) of the sacrificer, who remains a dīkita (initiate) and as such subject to restrictions of diet and behavior until the concluding bath (ava-bhtha, "the carrying away," i. e., of ritual matter by means of the waters). Special libations and an ii are connected with the dīkā. The next three days feature, in the morning and at midday, the ritual known as Pravargya and a ghee offering in the form of an ii called upasad ("sitting near" or "besieging"), after which these three days are called upasad days. The Pravargya ("to be removed," referring to the implements after the last performance) centers on a special clay pot (called mahāvīra, "great hero," or gharma, "heat"). Fresh milk is poured into this pot, which has been heated in the fire; of the milk boiled in this way a libation is made.

On the first upasad day the introductory (prāyaīyā ) ii is performed. The soma stalks are bartered for the soma cow, and "King Soma" (in the form of the soma stalks) is given a ceremonial reception that takes the form of another ii. On the second upasad day the outline of the place of sacrifice (the mahāvedī ) is traced and the earthen elevation for the offering fire is made. The third upasad day sees the construction of the other fire-places and of the various sheds on the mahāvedi; fire and soma stalks are brought forward in an elaborate procession and a paśubandha is performed. The soma sacrifice proper, entwined with another animal sacrifice, falls on the next, the fifth day, known as the sutya, or pressing day.

The soma stalks are pressed three times, in the morning, at midday, and in the afternoon, providing for three "services" or savana s ("pressings"). The pressing is done by four of the priests, who crush the stalks, spread on a bull's hide, with the pressing stones (grāvan ). The soma juice is mixed with water and poured through a woolen filter into the wooden soma tub (droakalaśa ). It is to this latter operation that the pavamana hymns of the gveda refer. Apart from the soma pressing, the distinctive feature of the sutyā day is formed by the twelve roundsfive each during the morning and midday savana s, and two in the afternoonof pouring the soma libation, drinking the soma, and conducting the liturgy of the variously arranged stotra chants and śastra recitations. The afternoon service is followed by the final bath (avabhrtha, "carrying away" of ritual matter to the waters), which forms the counterpart of the dīkā bath. Next is performed the concluding (udayaniyā ) ii, which corresponds to the introductory (prāyaīyā ) ii. But this is not yet the end, for a last paśubandha a cow for Mitra and Varuamust still be conducted. Only then is the "breaking up" (adavasānīyā ) ii performed, after which the sacrificer and the other participants return home (the śrauta sacrifice, and especially the soma sacrifice, take place outside the settled community, in the wilds).

This basic scheme allows for an unlimited but mostly unspectacular variation. Such variation concerns in the first place the numerical arrangement of the stotra s and the melodies (sāman ) to which they are sung. Second, as already mentioned, the number of sutyā days can be multiplied so as to form ahīna s and sattra s. Third, special rites can be inserted, both regular sacrificial acts and rites that are, strictly speaking, external to the śrauta system. Prominent among the latter are consecratory baths (abhieka, comparable to an elaborate dīkā ), which have given rise to a special class of sacrifices called sava ("instigation"), as well as agonistic rites: chariot races, dice games, and verbal and other contests. Storytelling, singing (as different from the Śāmavedic chanting), and dancing are occasionally prescribed. Such rites are mostly inserted in the middle of the sutyā day, during the midday service. A well-known case is provided by the mahāvrata ("great vow"). Technically a sutyā day at the end of the yearlong gavāmayana, it offers an interesting array of popular, apparently ancient rites, including a chariot race, arrow shooting, and a tug-of-war between an ārya and a śudra for a hide (believed to represent the sun), as well as the copulation of a "man from Magadha" (possibly meaning a musician) and a courtesan, and, of course, singing and dancing.

Similarly, the royal sacrifices, Vājapeya, Rājasūya, and Aśvamedha (horse sacrifice), are marked by such insertions. The Vājapeya ("booty" or "victory draft") follows the scheme of a one-day soma sacrifice which, however, combines the soma rites with those of the (popular) surā (grain liquor). Moreover, it features a race of seventeen chariots and a curious pole-climbing rite in which the sacrificer and his wife "ascend to heaven." The Rājasūya ("royal consecration") is essentially a series of five periodical soma sacrifices interconnected by ii- type sacrifices that stretch over two or three years. The important insertions are an elaborate abhieka (water consecration), the enthronement, a game of dice, a chariot drive or race, and the recitation of the interesting legend of Śunaśepa (a brahman boy bought by King Hariścandra as a substitute for his own son, whom he was bound to sacrifice to Varua, the point of the story being how Śunaśepa liberated himself by "seeing" and reciting stanzas in praise of Varua). These rites are inserted in the second soma sacrifice, the Abhiecanīya (connected with the abhieka ).

The prestigious horse sacrifice (Aśvamedha) is a three-day soma sacrifice. The horse, accompanied by warriors, is left to roam about for a year on a tour of "world conquest" and is immolated, together with other animals, on the second sutyā day (thus providing the animal sacrifice of the basic soma paradigm). The insertions concern first of all the treatment of the horse; the chief consort of the sacrificer has to go through a sham copulation with the immolated horse while exchanging prescribed obscene and enigmatic phrases with the other consorts. Further there is again a chariot race and a full-scale verbal contest (Brahmodya).

The Puruamedha, or human sacrifice, is modeled on the Aśvamedha. In this form it would seem to be no more than a theoretical possibility reflecting the gvedic Purua hymn (gveda 10.90). It does, however, raise the question of human sacrifice in general, outside the strictly bounded realm of the śrauta ritual. Although the idea of such sacrifices appears to have been known to the ritualists, as witnessed by the Śunaśepa legend, the actual practice would go against the grain of the śrauta ritual. The Brāhmaas repeatedly indicate that the sacrificer offers himself in sacrificelike his mythical prototype Prajāpati or the gvedic Puruabut the ritualistic solution is to "buy oneself free" (nikrīīte ) by substitution. Or rather, the sacrificial ritual effectively cancels the ultimate violence of self-sacrifice. In a comparable way the royal sacrificer is mysteriously identified with the sacrificed "King Soma," a mystery that as such is not meant to be concretely realized but can only be hinted at. Nor is there a need for a human substitute. The Puruamedha, then, appears to be a theoretical construct that may reflect non-śrauta practices translated into the terms of the śrauta systems.

Separate mention should be made of the Sautrāmanī, named after Indra Sutrāman ("savior"). It is the sacrifice of surā, the grain liquor. In terms of the śrauta system it is an animal sacrifice in which three male animals are immolated for the Aśvins (who mythologically obtained the surā by force from Namuci), Sarasvatī, and Indra. The special feature is, however, the preparation, offering, and drinking of the sura. The way the animal sacrifice and the surā beverage are intertwined is patterned after the soma ritual (though without the stotra-śastra liturgy). The Sautrāmanī, though also given as an independent sacrifice, is to follow a soma sacrifice in which an abhieka has been inserted (a sava, as in the Rājasūya). Apparently it is meant to remedy any unspecified bad effect of such sacrifices, as it is also said to cure the sacrificer from excessive soma drinking. In this connection, the function of the Aśvins as healers is relevant. It should be observed, however, that the sura beverage is not favored by the ritualists, who concentrate on soma instead, and later, in the dharma texts, surā is even prohibited.

Place of sacrifice and fires

In contradistinction to the domestic (ghya ) ritual, the śrauta ritual requires a place of sacrifice separate from the home. Of the soma sacrifice it is even said, "One undergoes the dīkā at home; in the wilderness one performs the sacrifice." Although the śrauta ritual requires the presence of the sacrificer's wife, it appears originally to have been linked with life outside the settled community. Accordingly, the place of sacrifice is a temporary structure that is left when the sacrifice has been complete.

Just as the śrauta sacrifices are ordered by degrees of complexity, so also the place of sacrifice goes from simpler to more complex, enlarged forms. The basic form is that used for Agnihotra and ii. An oblong shed, oriented to the east, with openings to the four directions, shelters the three fire hearths. The round gārhapatya ("householder's") hearth, where the vegetal or dairy oblations are prepared, is on the west side, the square āhavanīya (offering hearth) is on the east side, and the half-moon-shaped dakiāgni ("southern fire"), where the food given to the priestly guests is cooked, is to the southeast of the gārhapatya. Between the gārhapatya and the āhavanīya, the vedi, the altar on which the oblations are placed, is arranged in the form of a trapezium. The upper layer of earth is taken off and the dug-out space is covered with grass. With its base to the west, its upper side to the east, and its sides bent inward, it is meant to suggest the form of a woman, broad-hipped and narrow-shouldered, holding the bounty of sacrifice (that is, the oblations placed on the vedi ). To add to the vedi' s symbolism, the two shoulder points encompass the sides of the āhavanīya. Furthermore, there is a small mound (utkara ) formed by the earth taken from the place of the vedi and used for rubbish disposal on the northern side. North of the āhavanīya a vessel with water is put down. The sacrificer has his seat south of the āhavanīya, as does the brahman, whose place is to the east of the yajamāna 's seat; the hot is seated at the northwestern "hip" of the vedi and the āguīdhra, north of the vedi; the adhvaryu, who mostly moves around on the place of sacrifice, has no fixed place.

For the paśubandha (animal sacrifice) the place of sacrifice is enlarged by adding an open space, the "great vedi " (mahāvedi ), equally traced out in the form of a trapezium and covered with grass, immediately east of the fire shed. On the east side of the mahāvedi the new āhavanīya hearth (uttaravedi, "further vedi ") is arranged, and east of it the sacrificial pole (yūpa ) is erected. The center of the action is shifted to the east: The fire is brought from the old āhavanīya hearth in the fire shed and the latter serves henceforth as the gārhapatya. Outside the mahāvedi, to the north of it, sits the śamitra, the shed where the śamit ("appeaser") kills the victim (by suffocation) after it has been taken from the yūpa. The same special arrangement with fire shed and trapezoid mahāvedi is used for the soma sacrifice. The mahāvedi is considerably larger, as various sheds are built on it. West of the new āhavanīya is the havirdhāna shed, where the two soma carts (one of which was used to bring up the store of soma stalks) are kept, as well as the soma tub (droakalaśa ) and the other implements. On the western side, the north-south oriented sadas (seating hall) is erected. In the sadas six small fire hearths (dhiiya ) are made, one for each of the six reciting hotraka s; further on are the seats of the four chanters who perform the stotra. The drinking of the soma, after the libation in the fire, takes place in the southern part of the sadas. The entrances of the sadas are on the east and the west sides. When the participants enter the sadas in procession, they do so in a peculiar way "as if stalking a deer" (prasarpaa, "creeping," possibly the remnant of a hunting dance). Finally there are two more sheds, each with a small fire hearth, the āgnīdhrīya (the āgnīdhra's place) and the mārjalīya ("cleansing"), respectively on the north and south sides of the mahāvedi. Outside the mahāvedi is placed the utkara, as is the cātvāla (cesspit), from which the earth has been taken for the fire hearths.

Normally the hearths are made of earth mixed with other materials, such as gravel, earth from an anthill, mud from a dried-up pool, and so forth. In the case of the soma sacrifice it is also possible to enhance the prestige of the ceremony by using brick fire hearths. For the horse sacrifice this is obligatory. The focus of attention is the āhavanīya, which rests on the mahāvedi. The āhavanīya consists of a five-layered brick construction. This requires a full thousand bricks of various shapes and sizes so as to fit into the prescribed patternthe form of a bird with spread-out wings representing Agni (the bricks, being fired, are intimately connected with Agni). At the same time the brick-built āhavanīya is equated with the immolated and reconstructed body of Prajāpati or of the cosmic man (Purua). Various objects are buried in the ground beneath the brick construction, including the skulls of a man and of four animals (horse, bull, ram, he-goat) and a gold image of a man. This rather suggests a funerary tumulus (not unrelated to the Buddhist stūpa ). The construction of the brick hearths (Agnicayana, "piling the fire") is a complicated ritual of fetching the clay in a ceremonial procession (which can be shown to derive from a razzia or war expedition), firing the bricks, and finally building the hearths, especially the bird-shaped āhavanīya. The Agnicayana takes place during the upasad days, so as to be ready for the animal sacrifice on the last upasad day. After the sacrifice the brick-built fireplaces, like the place of sacrifice itself, are abandoned, not to be used again.

In this connection, mention should be made of the special ritual for the first installation of the śrauta fires, which forms the starting point of the śrauta sacrificer's career. This ritual, called Agnyādhāna or Agnyādheya, concerns the transition of the domestic householder-sacrificer to the status of an āhitāgni, one who has set up the śrauta fires. Hence the first part of the ritual is still domestic in nature, namely the cooking of a rice dish (odana ) on a fire taken from the domestic hearth. This rice dish is offered to four brahmans (the number four characterizing the smallest possible community, as it does in the case of the Buddhist monks' community). Over the dying embers the drilling sticks (the two arai s) are held and then given by the adhvaryu to the sacrificer. In the early morning of the next day the fire is drilled and put on the gārhapatya hearth. From the gārhapatya a burning piece of wood is taken and brought to the āhavanīya hearth, accompanied by a horse and a chariot wheel that is rolled in the same direction. This procedure for bringing over and setting up the āhavanīya fire, though easily interpreted as a solar charm, rather suggests a warlike expedition, especially when the accompanying mantra s (referring to unnamed enemies) are taken into consideration. The dakiāgni is either drilled separately, is taken from elsewhere, or is taken from the remainder of the odana' s cooking fire.

The ritual involves the installation of two more fires: the sabhya ("of the assembly," sabhā ) and the āvasathya ("of the residence," āvasatha, i. e., of the guests). Their installation involves a dice game for the portions of a cow, which may, however, be replaced by an odana. The total number of fires, then, is five, a number that is in later speculations connected with the five prāa s (vital breaths). In the śrauta sacrifices these two additional fires are not used, but they may well represent an ancient tradition of communal sacrificial festivalsa tradition that may live on in the Mahābhārata' s description of the royal sabhā where the Rājasūya of the Pāava protagonists took place, as well as the fatal game of dice that set off the all-consuming war between the Pāavas and the Kauravas.

The Agnyādhāna is then rounded off by the first Agnihotra and ii. The main point of the Agnyādhāna is, however, the bridging of the gap between the ghya (domestic) and the śrauta spheres. The two sorts of fire, domestic (called aupāsada or āmātya ) and śrauta, are discontinuous. They are to be linked to each other by the person of the sacrificer, who after the completion of the sacrifice symbolically takes the fires into himself to reproduce them for the next sacrifice with the help of his arais.

Domestic ritual

The domestic (ghya ) ritual requires only the domestic fire (aupāsada or āmātya ). It is, in principle, performed by the master of the house with the help of a house priest (purohita, lit., "put forward," apparently to ward off evil). The domestic sacrifices, including a domestic Agnihota, cake and gruel offerings (pākayajña ), and animal sacrifices, have undergone the influence of the śrauta system but are not directly derived from them. In many respects they may be nearer to the common source of both types of ritual, the material of this common source having been "recycled" and rigidly systematized in the śrauta ritual.

A prominent occasion for the animal sacrifice is the reception (arghya ) of a prestigious guest to whom a cow is offered. The guest must then either order to kill and prepare the cow for a meal or release it. The burden for the killing falls on the guest, not on the host. This point is not without importance in connection with later notions about ahisā (nonviolence) and the prohibition of cow slaughter. It may also explain the Buddha's refusal to have meat prepared for him.

The main part of the domestic ritual concerns the life cycle rituals. The first of these is marriage, at which time the domestic fire, derived from the fire lit for the occasion in the bride's home, is established in the new home. Further rituals are the furthering of the birth of male progeny (Pusavana), the birth rites (Janmakarma), first taking of solid food (Annaprāśana), first haircutting (Cūākaraa, "making the hairtuft," cūā ).

Then follows the important initiation to the Veda (Upanayana, "leading up to" and acceptance of the boy by the teacher). This is said to be the "second birth" of the "twice born" vara s of brāhmaa s, katriya s, and vaiśya s, which qualifies them for the use of Vedic mantra s and for becoming, if they so wish, śrauta sacrificers. The period of pupilage or fosterage (brahmacārin, "walking in brahman " lasts, in theory at least, a varying number of years according to the vara of the pupil and is concluded by the Samāvartana, the "turning around" or return from the teacher. The former brahmacārin is now a snātaka, "one who has taken the bath" that ends his duties and restrictions as a pupil; the restrictions of the brahmacārin include chastity and are generally similar to those of the dīkita. Originally, the brahmacārin would seem to have been a young warrior who commends himself as a vassal to a magnate or warlord rather than a pupil peacefully devoted to learning by heart the Veda. His "return" as a snātaka is preferably by chariot and thereby recalls the dīkita, who, according to the older Śrautasūtras, also sets out on a chariot to the place of sacrifice. The term samāvartana seems, moreover, more appropriate to the warrior's art of turning around the horse-drawn chariot at high speed than to returning home. The long period of initiation to Vedic lore, then, appears to be largely a theoretical construct preserving the memory of an older situation rather than a generally applied rule. Accordingly, the Upanayana is the decisive rite that gives access to the Veda, whether or not there is an extended period of pupilage and a samāvartana rite.

To the domestic ritual also belong the funerary rites. These concern the cremation of the body, the Pitmedha ("ancestor sacrifice"), which, as the name indicates, is viewed as a (holocaust) sacrifice. The cremation fire is the household fire or, in the case of a śrauta sacrificer, his three sacrificial fires, which are placed around the pyre. The wife of the deceased lies down with the body of her husband on the pyre but is then ordered with a mantra to stand up again before the pyre is lit (the Veda apparently knows but rejects the burning of the widow). Then the parts of an immolated cow (or other female animal) are placed on corresponding parts of the body and burned with him. If the deceased was a śrauta sacrificer his sacrificial implements are also placed on his body. Afterward the ashes are gathered and at a later date interred under a tumulus (loaciti, "earth piling").

The period of mourning and impurity (āśarca ) of the relatives at the death of a full-grown family member lasts for twelve days and is completed by a purificatory rite including a bath. The next stage is the incorporation of the deceased (who as a preta, or "one gone forth," is thought to roam about) into the ranks of the ancestors (pit ) to receive his part of the cult. The cult consists in the festive Śrāddha (from śrāddha, "faith"), a meal offered to brahmans. On this occasion three rice balls (pia s) are put on the ground for the three immediate ancestors, represented by three brahmans who silently wait till the rice balls are cooled and they emit no steam. The ancestors are supposed to be fed by the steam of the hot rice balls, which are set on the ground and left there. Apart from the Śrāddha, which is very much a social occasion and is performed periodically as well as at particular auspicious occasions (such as the birth of a son), there are also daily offerings of water and food to the ancestors.

The pia offering to the ancestors has also found a place in the śrauta ritual, most notably on the preparatory day of the ii. Rice is cooked on the southern fire, offerings are made from it into the same fire, and three pia s are placed on a special vedi near the fire. An enlarged version of this pia-pit-yajña is incorporated as the "great ancestor sacrifice" (Mahāpityajña) in the Sākamedha, the third of the seasonal four-month sacrifices.

As already mentioned, the cult of the ancestors is characterized by the use of the left side and the left hand as well as by uneven numbers.

Interpretations of Vedic ritual

Vedic ritual is usually interpreted in the sense of magic, the Veda being the means to bring about well-being and to avoid pain, as is stated by the fourteenth-century commentator Sāyaa. This interpretation is supported by the fact that the ritual texts dutifully declare which desire will be fulfilled by the performance of a particular sacrifice: health, wealth (especially in cattle), progeny, headmanship, or, less materialistically, (access to) heaven. More important, the ritual system as such is given in the Brāhmaas as a perfectly ordered mechanism to dominate and regulate the cosmic processes, both as regards the individual's life and the universe at large. In this context the gods are not free agents but, being themselves cosmic forces, they are compelled to do the sacrificer's bidding. The place of sacrifice is a microcosmos encompassing heaven and earth, and the ritual is identical with the cosmic order. When set in motion and correctly executed the ritual automatically controls the universe. Thus, for instance, it is said that the sun would not rise if the morning libation of the Agnihota were not offered in the fire (Śatapatha Brāhmaa

The Brāhmaas relate the ritual microcosmos to the macrocosmos and to the individual's life through the identification of ritual acts, objects, and implements with the elements of the macrocosmos and with parts of the sacrificer's body, the sacrificer being identified with Prajāpati, the mythical embodiment of sacrifice. Although these identifications, which form the central feature of the Brāhmaas, suggest a rich and multilayered network of symbolic relations, they are not so much multi-interpretable symbolic statements as one-to-one equations of ritual items with human and macrocosmic ones. They are, each one separately, isolated identificatory statements. As they occur in the Brāhmaas they make a singularly atomized impression. Taken together they are no more than a collection lacking consistency. Whereas Vedic hymnology capitalizes on the associative ramification of symbolic connections, such connections (nidāna, bandhu ) are, in the Brāhmaas, reduced to single, unmistakable identifications. The connection on which the identification is based is often a number characterizing both items, which are then said to "coincide" (sapad) or to exhibit the same count (sakhyāna ): for instance, three fires, three worlds; 360 stotriyā s, 360 days in the year. Such equivalences are, of course, known to the Vedic hymns, but they are not directly made explicit as they are in the Brāhmaas. The explicit use of equivalence appears to have been viewed by the ritualists as an innovative techniqueindeed their premier intellectual toolto identify the ritual with the universe and so to reduce the universe to a strict, ritually controlled order.

The significance of identification and of the ritual system it underwrites is clearly set out in a ritualistic myth given in explanation of the mahāvrata soma sacrifice. Its theme is the sacrificial contest of Prajāpati and his antagonist Mtyu (Death). In this contest Prajāpati's "weapons" are the stotra, the śastra, and the ritual act. The arsenal of Death consists of lute playing, singing, dancing, and improper acts. For many years the contest remains undecided. But the breakthrough comes when Prajāpati finally discovers ("sees") the (numerical) equivalence, namely, of his own "weapons" with those of Death. Once the equivalence is established, Prajāpati effortlessly subjugates Death's panoply to his own, cancels the rival sacrifice, and so defeats Mtyu (Jaiminīya Brāhmaa 2.6970). It is to be noted that Prajāpati's "weapons" are elements of the śrauta system of ritual, such as stotra, śastra, and regular sacrificial acts. It is through their equivalences that Prajāpati overcomes and integrates the countervailing power of Death. The latter's rival sacrifice, incorporating singing, dancing, and improper acts, is clearly non-śrauta.

Such acts are indeed part of the mahāvrata, which features a number of contest rites and even copulation. What the ritualistic myth relates, however, is that these rites are made harmless and are in fact superseded by Prajāpati's victory. Indeed, the term mahāvrata generally means no more than a sutyā day characterized by a particular arrangement of its stotra s and forming part of a sattra made up of similarly differentiated soma -pressing days. In the same way other non-śrauta rituals and sacrifices were remodeled and fitted into the śrauta system. For instance, the guest reception offered to King Soma is made into a vegetal ii, not essentially different from any other ii. A more complicated example is provided by the so-called vrātyastoma s, which are related to the mahāvrata. The vrātya (from vrāta, "gang, band," possibly derived from vrata, "vow") is a consecrated warrior in many ways related to the dīkita. The Atharvaveda in a long hymn celebrates the vrātya as a sacral cosmic figure. However, his disturbingly aggressive habits, which still shine clearly through the Brāhmaas, ill suit the perfect order of the ritual. The ritualists solved the problem they presented by remodeling the sacrifice of the vrātya s into the regular soma sacrifices of the ahīna type.

The Brāhmaa myth of Prajāpati's and Mtyu's sacrificial contest brings out the extent and depth of the reflection that went into the formulation of the ritual system. It also shows the aim of the ritualists' work. This is made clear by the story's conclusion: "Now there is no sacrificial contest (sasava ) anymore; what was the other (rival) sacrifice, that came to nought; the sacrifice is only one; Prajāpati is the sacrifice." That is: Conflict is canceled; the enemy, Death, has been subjected to the rule of ritual. Henceforth, the single sacrificer stands uncontested on his place of sacrifice where he establishes his own perfectly ordered universe governed by the ritual. The mythological battle of deva s and asura s has been decided by the ritual system. Enemies, like the asura s, are still profusely mentioned in the Brāhmaas, but only as disembodied entities defeated in advance by the unfailing means of the ritual. The only remaining uncertainty is the ritual mistake, which, however, can be repaired by ritual means (prāyaścitta, "removal of concern").

The ritual system is an absolute, universal, and nonconflicting order: It is, in other words, transcendent. While the hymn's world of the gods imperceptibly shaded over the world of men, the suprahuman (apaurueya ) śruti and its ritual is now separated by a gap from the mundane world of conflict. The śrauta sacrifice has been individualized and desocialized. It is the exclusive affair of the single sacrificer. He and his priests should form one single body; otherwise, they are separate individuals within a group of priests, all of whom are at once sacrificers in the sattra. The situation in which more than one sacrificer would exist in addition to the priests on the place of sacrifice is explicitly ruled out. This may explain the striking lack of public religious ceremonies. Although the royal śrauta sacrifices such as the Rājasūya (consecration of the king) contain ample indications of a former public festival, the royal sacrificer is a single sacrificer, no different from any other soma sacrificer. The public rites have been remodeled in accordance with the standard paradigms of the individualized ritual, or else they are dismembered as separate acts inserted into the standard soma paradigm. The Rājasūya, formally speaking, does not make a sacrificer a king, for it is stated that "a king who wants to attain heaven should perform the Rājasūya" (pastamba Śrautasūtra 18.8.1). That is: He is already a king who for his own reasons performs the sacrifice. This is recognized in the later dharma texts, which do not prescribe it as the required consecration. Similarly, the Aśvamedha sacrificer should already have the status of a world ruler (pastamba Śrautasūtra 10.1.1).

The śrauta ritual, as many details of its rules and the Brāhmaa explanations make clear, has its origin in the heroic and essentially tragic world of the warrior who like the gods must "move about on wheels" and contend for the goods of life with the asura -like settled magnate who "sits in his hall." He can only hope that he may survive and eventually quit the life of the warrior (kattravtti ) so as to become a settled householder and magnate himself. The warrior lives in the wilds (araya ); hence the sacrificer's setting out from home. The settled community (grāma ) on the other hand is the sphere of the magnate. The two spheres, grāma and araya, are clearly hostile to each other but equally complementary. The point of contact that held both together was their conflict contained by the sacrificial contest that lived on in the hypertrophical imagination of the epic "sacrifice of battle" (raayajña ). Both epics, the Mahābhārata as well as the Rāmāyaa, still show the alternation between the wandering warrior's life in the wilds and the sphere of settled rulership.

The śrauta ritual indicated a clear break with the cyclical alternation of grāma and araya and with the sacrificial contest as the joint holding the two together. By the elimination of conflict from the desocialized and individualized sacrifice the two spheres were definitively broken apart. This is illustrated by the agnyādheya, which physically separates the domestic fire from the śrauta fires. The resulting gap must then be bridged by the single sacrificer who alternates between his life in the world and the transcendent rule of the śruti. Put differently, he must fuse the two opposite rules of a substantial householder and a wandering warrior. Hence, only a householder can be an āhitāgni, that is, one who has set up the śrauta fires permanently and thereby submits himself to the absolute order of the śruti. This gives him access to transcendence, but by the same token this does not change his social position. Whether king or commoner, under the rule of ritual all sacrificers are equal. Sacrifice can only impoverish the āhitāgni, since he has to go on spending his wealth in sacrifices and dakiā s without a chance to recoup through reciprocity at the sacrifices of others. Accordingly, there is no obligation for the qualified householder to set up the fires and to submit to the strict discipline of śrauta sacrifice. If he does, he must be sure of himself and his fortune, or, as the texts put it, he must have absolute faith (śraddhā ). It is true that the śrauta sacrifice promises him the fulfillment of his wishes. In the sacrificial contest the possibility of fulfilling one's wishes was clear. The goods of life were concretely set out as the stakes and prizes of the contest. The śrauta ritual by contrast does not and cannot make clear how the desired results are to be brought about. It is adārtha (without visible object), that is, transcendent.

It is clear, then, that the śrauta ritual hinges on a paradox. It offers itself as an effective magical means for the gratification of the sacrificer's worldly desires. On the other hand it withdraws from all worldly concerns from which desocialization and individualization have cut it free. It is a closed system of rationalistically devised rules, complete in itself and regardless of the uses and abuses to which it may be put. In the last resort it rejects its own potential for magical and sacral meaning. Beyond magic and sacrality it stands by itself in sovereign transcendence.


Though admittedly a vague term, Brahmanism is best defined in relation to Vedism. It does not primarily concern religious cults or institutions but rather propounds particular views, laid down in texts, about humanity and the universe. These views are, however, equally fundamental to Hinduism in general. Their specificity resides in the claim to be related to or directly derived from the Veda. Brahmanism is, therefore, usually considered to be the Veda-oriented form of Hinduism, immediately following Vedism. However, since the textual tenets of Brahmanism are generally authoritative also in later Hinduism, a three-tiered succession of Vedism, Brahmanism, and Hinduism tends to be misleading. Moreover, like Vedism, Brahmanism is not likely to cover the whole of early Hindu religious belief and practice. Brahmanism is characterized by its acknowledgment of the Veda as the ultimate source of transcendent authority. Thereby it is clearly marked off from the "heterodox" sects or movements such as Buddhism, Jainism, Ajīvakas, and the materialist schools (Lokāyata, Cārvāka), which reject the authority of the Veda.

In Indian terms, the relationship between Vedism and Brahmanism is that of śruti ("hearing"), the transcendent "revelation" as against the worldly or human tradition, called smti ("remembrance"). The word śruti does not refer to the mode of receiving the revelations: The standard term is "seeing," not "hearing." Śruti thus refers to the transmission of the fixed and systematized texts. In this sense it is not essentially different from the smti, except for the unique care and efforts spent on its preservation and transmission. But the differentiation marked by the two terms is significant. Although the smti equally tends to give itself as revelation, namely by the godhead, the transcendent authority of the śruti does not derive from any godhead. It stands by itself without the intermediary of a divine agency. Its authority being ultimate, it can have no other, higher source. It therefore functions as the unassailable basis of the fluid and adaptive worldly smti. Another word for smti is dharma, universal law, which then is said to be derived from or to be already contained in the śruti. At any rate the dharma should not go counter to the śruti. In fact, however, the relationship is more complex and indeed problematic.


In addition to the Vedas and Brāhmaas, the texts to which Brahmanism, or, to use the Indian term, the smti, refers are the Upaniads, the Dharmasūtras and Dharmaśāstras, the epics (Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaa ), and the Purāas. The Upaniads can be chronologically distinguished by their form: The older prose Upaniads are extensions of the ritualist Brāhmaas. Most of the younger ones, often of sectarian origin and with a wide variety of contents, are metrical. The latter genre has been productive over a long period reaching far beyond the late Vedic texts, until at least the sixteenth century ce. The Upaniads belong to the śruti, and this title is a claim to ultimate authority. In the same way, the set of 108 Upaniads (listed in the Muktikā Upaniad ) are ascribed to the Vedic śākhā s (schools), but it is significant that a large proportion is ascribed to the Atharvaveda, in which have been collected many other materials that do not fit into the śrauta system.

The Dharmasūtras are in the same condensed style as the Vedic sūtra s and are equally affiliated with Vedic "schools" (caraa ). This affiliation becomes looser with the metrical Dharmaśāstras. No less important as a storehouse of mythology, religious notions, and dharma are the wide-ranging Mahābhārata (especially its twelfth book, the Śāntiparvan, and its sixth book, which contains the celebrated Bhagavadgītā ) and the Rāmāyaa, which has known a great number of reworkings. The encyclopedic Purāas ("ancient stories") deal, in principle, with five topics (pañcalakaa, "five characteristics"): creation, periodical recreation, genealogy (of gods and holy men), the world periods (yuga s), and the dynasties. But many other materials have been added at various unspecified times: dharma precepts, pilgrimage, hymns, and sectarian treatises. They have functioned over a long period as a storehouse receiving all manner of materials. The Purāas (the term occurs already in the Atharvaveda ) continued the tradition of legends (itihāsa ) that occasionally make an appearance in the śrauta ritual (e.g., the Śunahśepa story in the Rājasūya). Chandogya-Upaniad 3.4.1. mentions itihāsa-purāa as the "fifth Veda," which is later taken to comprise the epics as well.

Brahmanism, though primarily textual, does not have a fixed corpus of texts. Its tenets are recorded in a variety of texts stretching over a long and, in fact, indefinite period of time. Its impact has made itself felt in Hinduism, increasing and decreasing in various regions at different times. It would seem that rising regional dynasties have been instrumental in creating waves of "brahmanization." This will also have been responsible for the incorporation in the texts of materials of regional and sectarian origin. But such brahmanization equally carried the śruti with it, which as the source of ultimate authority was of singular importance for the ruler's legitimation.

Interiorization of the ritual

The crucial issue here is the relationship of Brahmanism with the Veda, that is, between śruti and smti. The śruti has exhausted itself in creating a closed system of ritual order. But the price that had to be paid for this achievement was the alienation from the worldly concerns of the mundane order. The śruti waspurposelydesocialized and individualized. This created the problem of reconnecting it again with the mundane order. Propounding an absolute and seamless order, the śruti rejects conflict and places the rival beyond the pale. It therefore cannot speak to man's worldly concerns. Notwithstanding the proclaimed dependence of the dharma on the śruti, the latter's contents do not provide specific guidelines for the tensions and conflicts of social life.

Once it was desocialized and individualized there was only one way open to the śruti: interiorization. What then takes priority is no longer the faithful execution of the ritual but knowledge of the ritual and of the identifications on which it rests. This is already prefigured in the recurrent Brāhmaa phrase that a particular ritual act is effective only for him "who knows thus," that is, for him who knows the relevant identification. It is thus possible to perform the ritual in thought alone (manasā ). The transcendent order of the ritual is realized internally in the way of discipline medi-tation.

An illustrative example is provided by the Agnihota, offered in five breaths that are equated with the five sacrificial fires (prāāgnihota ). In mundane terms it is simply eating one's meal embellished with mouth rinsings and simple mantra s. But the same pattern enables the brahman to participate in a festive meal to which he is invited (a Śrāddha, for instance). He is thus not just a guest obliged to his munificent host but an individual sacrificer who performs the sacrificial ritual independent of his host and the surrounding society. In other words, it enables the brahman to square the circle of living in society and of transcending it at the same time.

World renunciation

From the individualized sacrificer and his internalized sacrifice there runs a straight line leading to the extramundane world renouncer (sanyāsin ), who gives up the three aims of mundane lifethe socioreligious duties of the householder (dharma ), the acquisition and management of wealth (artha ), and sensual gratification (kāma )to devote himself single-mindedly to a strict inner discipline that results in his liberation from earthly life (moka ). Though there is a wide variety of such inner disciplines they all share the ritualistic strictness of an internalized transcendent order. The renouncer's discipline obviously goes beyond, and in many if not most cases even rejects, Vedic ritualism. But it is the desocialization and individualization of Vedic ritual that has prepared the ground for the institution of sanyāsa, or renunciation.

In this connection two sets of ideas, both deriving from ritualistic thought, are fundamental. The first such notion is the Upaniadic identification of ātman, the individual "soul," with brahman. In the Vedic hymns brahman is the multilayered and multi-interpretable, often paradoxical or enigmatic formulation. The unexpressed inner connection is the essence of the brahman. The Brāhmaa ritualists reduce the brahman to the explicit identification. In both cases, however, it is this fundamental force that makes the poetic statement as well as the rite effective. In this way the brahman came to be seen as the transcendent principle of universal order. The sanyāsin' s discipline, as already announced in the Upaniads, means the internal realization of the brahman as the principle of transcendent order through its identification with the ātman. It is the ultimate identification tying together and thereby canceling the dispersed identifications of the Brāhmaas in the single person of the renouncer, as was in fact already the case with the individualized śrauta sacrificer who was identified with Prajāpati or the purua.

The other set of ideas, equally ritualistic in origin, is the concept of karman, or work. In the Brāhmaas karman is the sacrifice. Originally this sacrificial "work" had a social context. It rested on the competitive reciprocity of hosts and guests, the latter having to redeem themselves by acting in their turn as hosts. The individualization of the śrauta sacrifice, however, put an abrupt stop to all exchange and reciprocity. This meant that now the sacrificer had to exchange his karman with himself alone, one's karman inexorably bringing the next karman in its wake. This, combined with the not exclusively Indian notion of an unending alternation of birth, death, and rebirth (sasāra ), created the urge to terminate the endless chain of ever-renewed karman that could no longer be transferred to the rival. The only way open was then to renounce all karman, all activity, by realizing internally the stasis of absolute order. Obviously, this signifies rejection of the external sacrifice as well. Even though it cancels Vedic ritualism, the ideal of terminating all karman can be seen as the consequence of ritualistic thought.

The crucial importance of the institution of world renunciation in Brahmanism and in Hinduism in general is that it created two opposite and incompatible spheres: the transcendent sphere of the renouncer's individualistic rejection of society as against the social world and its requirements. At the same time, however, the renouncer paradoxically needs society, which must provide for his upkeep so as to enable him to preserve his discipline. On the other hand society wants to draw him into its web again as the holder of transcendent authority. That is: The sanyāsin will gather a following. He is therefore especially known as the founder of a sect. The Indian sect typically has a sanyāsin as founder, who will be succeeded by one of his pupils to lead the worldly lay followers.

Vara and āśrama

The dharma or world order, being universal, must regulate both worldly and renunciatory life. This is the subject of varāśramadharma, the order of caste (vara ) and life stages (āśrama, "place of exertion," hence also dwelling place of ascetics). While caste orders worldly society, the life stages give a place to its opposite, renunciation. As regards caste, it is to be noted that the smti knows two terms, jāti (genus) and vara (shape, color). The two terms are to some extent interchangeable, but there is a marked difference. Although there are only four vara sbrāhmaa s (Eng., brahmans), katriya s (warriors), vaiśya s (producers), and śūdra s, who serve the three "twice-born" vara s (that is, those who have been initiated to the Vedic mantra s)the number of jāti s is unlimited. The latter are said to have arisen in the first instance from mixed unions of the four vara s. However, the scriptural order of the vara s is based on their strict separation, that is, neither intermarriage nor commensality is allowed. As no society can exist on the basis of the single principle of separation, the jāti s make society function. But this equally means that jāti society is based on a serious transgression, namely varasakara, or "mixing of the vara s."

The principle of separation can be seen as deriving from the individualization of the Vedic sacrificer that resulted from the exclusion of conflict and competition. In fact, individualization did not stop at the boundary of the vara. The scriptural rules forbid marriages among even distant relatives, and so are directed against the formation of extended marriage networks. As in the case of the sacrificer's individualization, the separation of the vara aims at a static, conflictless order through the exclusion of social relations. The scriptural order of the separate vara s is in the last resort incompatible with the reality of the associative and conflictive jātis.

Although it is not stressed in the texts, the religious principle of the jāti order appears to be the asymmetric interdependence of pure and impure, the impure being the "fallout" of life processes, including death and decay. Their hierarchy as well as their obvious complementarity led the French sociologist Louis Dumont to his impressive analysis of the Indian caste order as based on and encompassed by the religious principle of the pure-impure hierarchy. Although this analysis holds for the jāti order, it is undermined by the scriptural vara, which rejects relations of complementarity and interdependence in favor of separation and independence.

This problem is particularly clear in the case of the brahman. As the ideal repository and upholder of the transcendent śruti the brahman should be immaculately pure. But this requirement threatens to make him dependent on the impuresuch as the sweeper or the washermanand such relations of dependence would fatally impair his purity. Purity, then, is the absence of relations. Strictly speaking he should not be a priest, because this would involve him in social relations of a particularly dangerousbecause sacralnature. Ideally, the brahman should stand outside of society, the highest brahman being the one who has no power or wealth or even provisions for the next day, and who performs the ritual in and for himself alone. Thus he bears the brunt of the incompatibility between jāti interdependence and vara separation. In other words, the ideal brahman should be a renouncer. The tension between jāti and vara is akin to the one between society and renunciation, and derives from the same source.

The scriptural theory of the four stages of life (āśrama ) brings social and renunciatory life together in a single scheme. These four stages are those of the pupil memorizing the Veda (brahmacārin ); the married householder (ghastha ); the cenobitic forest dweller (vānaprastha ), who still keeps up his domestic fire; and the individualized renouncer (sanyāsin ), who has interiorized the fire and consequently the ritual. Of these four it is only the ghastha who is fully a member of society and as such must perform the scriptural duties toward the Vedic seers by upholding the śruti, toward the ancestors by progeny, and toward the gods by sacrifice. Only after these duties, especially the continuation of the lineage, have been fulfilled, is the householder free to withdraw from the world and strive for final liberation (moka ). It would seem that the basic principle is again the opposition of social and renunciatory life. Originally, the two opposites were given their due in a pattern of the cyclical alternation of life in the established community, setting out into the wilderness and returning again. When this alternating cycle was broken, the opposite and now-incompatible phases were given their due by placing them in the linear succession of the four āśrama s, spanning the individual's life.

Ahisā, vegetarianism, and the cow

Ahisā (nonviolence) brings out the problematic character of the relationship between śruti and smti. It categorically forbids the killing of animals. Yet the śruti prescribes animal sacrifice and the consumption of the victim's meat, albeit only an insignificant part of it (the iā ). Ludwig Alsdorf has distinguished three stages. First, there is no question of a general rule against meat consumption, but only against particular kinds of animals. Next, meat-eating is forbidden, except in the isolated context of the animal sacrifice. The third and last stage brings the absolute prohibition of meat (together with intoxicating drinks, such as surā ). This does not, however, explain the reason for the rise of ahisā. Non-Hindu influences, such as Buddhism and Jainism, have often been assumed to be important factors. Alsdorf suggests the pre-Aryan Indian civilization as the source of the prohibition. Hanns-Peter Schmidt, however, has pointed out that the Vedic ritual itself evinces a strong aversion to the violence of immolation. Part of the ritual is concerned with undoing the harm of the sacrificial killing. In Schmidt's view it was the internalization of the ritual that brought about ahisā. Internalization canceled the external acts needed to undo the evil of killing, which is still involved, even in the internal food sacrifice (of the prāāgnihota type). From then on the only way open was the absolute prohibition of meat.

The problem is further complicated by the sacrosanctity of the cow and the consequent prohibitionequally alien to the śruti of cow's meat. Nevertheless, both ahisā and the prohibition of cow's meat can be seen as deriving from the śrauta ritual, though in a different way from the one proposed by Schmidt. Originally it may have been a matter of alternating phases, namely the phase of the trekking consecrated warrior (the dīkita ), who should preserve and, if possible, increase his cow herd (and consequently should not eat meat) as against the homecoming celebrated by a sacrificial festival that lifts the prohibition of meat-eating. The trekking phase of the warrior was decidedly violent, but vegetarian; the settled phase reversed the situation: Meat-eating is allowed, even prescribed, but social relations should be marked by nonviolence. In this way vegetarianism and the cow taboo can be seen as different in origin and even opposite to each other, deriving from opposite phases. With the collapse of their cyclical alternation, both the trekking warrior and the peaceful householder had to be homogenized into the single householder-sacrificer. As such he was required not only to be both nonviolent and to abstain from the cow, but at the same time to perform the sacrifice, which, even if vegetal, still involved the killing (grinding and pressing being explicitly considered as "killing") of the sacrificial substances.

Although this may explain the origin of vegetarianism based on ahisā and of the sacrosanctity of the cow, the fact remains that there is an unresolved conflict between the śruti and the smti. This conflict is formulated in terms of the two opposite spheres of social life and renunciation. Eating meat is the ongoing way of the world (pravtti ), but abstention (nivtti, the term for the cessation of worldly processes) brings ultimate spiritual rewards (Mānava Dharmaśāstra 5.56).

Cultic institutions

Separate frombut not wholly dissociated fromthe impersonal cosmic principle there lies in the texts a profuse mythology. The Vedic ritual itself came to overshadow the gods as the central cosmic force and reduced them to mere names whose only place was in the mantra s. Accordingly, the Veda is fundamentally aniconic. Brahmanism by contrast gives way to a rich stream of theistic beliefs and practices (which may never have been absent but were simply ignored by the Vedic scriptures). The Śvetāśvatara Upaniad, considered as the gate to theistic Hinduism, places the "Lord" (īśa or īśvara ) in the center. Being intimately connected with the impersonal brahman he is both transcendent and, in his relation to humans, immanent. Such transcendent and immanent gods, who as such are to be distinguished from the great many divinities, are Śiva (Rudra), to whom the title īśa or īśvara primarily refers, and Viu. Together with the personified Brahma (who hardly receives a cult) they are often represented iconographically as the trimurti, the "triple body" or trinity.

Theism opened the way to cultic institutions, the first of which may be considered the temple, which developed from a simple open-air sanctuary to ever more elaborate complexes with a central cella and deity (mūrti ) in an awe-inspiring towerlike and massive structure surrounded by smaller sanctuaries and niches for other gods, the whole of which was marked off by an outer wall. Second is the pūjā as the fundamental cult form, both in the household and more elaborately in the temple. Though the pūjā had existed before, its textual canonization by Brahmanism was a new development. Its basic pattern is the hospitable reception of an honored guest who is offered a bath, clothes, food, and a resting place. In the great temples of Śiva and Viu the pūjā is elaborated into a full and regal ceremony involving also the god's consorts and divine retainers. In the sense of a hospitable reception offered to the guest the pūjā is closely related to the Vedic ritual, which, as Thieme has shown (see above), derives from the same pattern. This does not mean that the pūjā evolved out of the Vedic ritual. Rather, the two are different realizations of the same basic pattern.

The individualization achieved by Vedic ritualism is also a characteristic of Brahmanism. This is clearly noticeable in the pūjā. The domestic pūjā, like the Vedic ghya ritual, is strictly a family affair. The individualistic tendency is displayed most clearly in the temple. Although great crowds are usually present at the temple during particular festivals, they do not participate in the actual pūjā. To pay their obeisance and to obtain a view (darśana ) of the deity, the devotees pass, one by one, before the opening of the cella. Like Vedism, Brahmanism is devoid of regular sacra publica. Public and royal festivals, such as the raising of the "Indra pole" (Indradhvaja, a sort of Maypole), are described in the epics and Purāas but are not in any way prescribed. In this respect it is significant that although the Śrāddha in honor of the ancestors can be celebrated as a social gathering with a large number of guests, the dharma texts explicitly prefer the patron to invite no more than three brahmans, or even only one (Mānava Dharmaśāstra 3.125, 126, 129). Whereas Hinduism involves large public festivals, Brahmanism holds on to the individualism of Vedism.

The most important cultic notion to pervade Indian religiosity as a whole is bhakti ("participation"), the single-minded loving devotion to the godhead (in this context usually known as the bhagavat, the "felicitous one"), in whose being the devotee (bhakta ) strives to share. Though at the opposite end from Vedic ritualism and Upaniadic thought, bhakti appears to be ancient. Its attitude of loving devotion is already commended in relatively early Upaniads (especially the Katha Upaniad ). The term makes its first entry in the Śvetāśvatara Upaniad, which is generally known for its theistic stance. It is, however, in the Bhagavadgītā (Mahābhārata 6.2542) that bhakti is canonized as the third "way" (mārga ), next to (Upaniadic) knowledge (jñāna, that is, "knowledge" of brahman ) and ritualism (karman ). There bhakti is connected with the concept of disinterested worldly action (karmayoga, "harnessing oneself to action"). This means that the devotee should perform all actions that his station in life requires of him (even if this means that the warrior Arjuna must kill his relatives), but without any self-interest. It is a renunciatory attitude: The devotee renounces the result, the "fruit" (phala ) of his actions. This attitude is the answer to the gap that divides life in the world from world renunciation. But the fusion of worldly and renunciatory life can only be achieved at the price of a paradox: The devotee fully engages in worldly activity, including violent conflict, but does not engage himself.

The Bhagavat (or Bhagavan), the god of the bhakta, is most commonly a form of Viu. His connection with the cosmic pillar and his avatara s or "descents" in the world to restore the dharma and save humankind made him the ideal mediator between humans and transcendence. The devotee's bhakti is especially directed toward two of his forms of avatara s, namely Ka and Rāma. Ka is worshiped as the divine child or as the cowherd (gopāla ), the beloved of the gopī s, the cowherd girls. As a charioteer and bard (sūta: the combination of the two functions is a standard one) he proclaims the Bhagavadgītā to the warrior Arjuna. His story is told in the tenth book of the Bhāgavata Purāa, a fundamental text for the bhakti cult and for religious art, especially miniatures. King Rāma is the protagonist of the epic Rāmāyaa. The basic text of Rāma devotionalism is the Old Hindi Rāmacaritamānasa of Tulsīdās (fifteenth century), one of the many reworkings of the classical epic.

Concentrating on the inner life and attitude of the devotee, bhakti as a cult form does not need specific installations or institutions. It does know, however, a "congregational," though informal, form of worship: the singing of devotional hymns (bhajan ). Both in its individual interiorized and in its "congregational" forms bhakti easily associates itself with temples and with organized sects. In fact, bhakti imbues all Hindu religiosity. As such it translates the Western concept of religion better than the word dharma, which has come into use in this sense only in the last century, and misleadingly stresses religious law and doctrine.

In the marked absence of a well-defined clergy, the most important figure in Brahmanism, as well as in Hinduism in general, is the guru, the spiritual teacher and guide. Ideally, he is a world renouncer or at least is known for his lack of self-interest. Although not a priest in the sense of an officiant or dispenser of sacraments, he holds an all but absolute authorityeven in matters not necessarily of a spiritual naturein the personal affairs of his devotees. Even in the context of bhakti, which emphasizes the direct personal relationship of the devotee to his god, the guru is the indispensable mediator. He can be seen as the actual recipient of the cult. Indian religiosity would be able to dispense with its gods on the condition that there is a guru.

Itself not a cult or a sect, Brahmanism is receptive to a great variety of beliefs, practices, and institutions. Its characteristic as well as its specific contribution to Hinduism is the faithful acknowledgement of the authority of the śruti. More importantly, Brahmanism carries on the individualistic tradition of interiorization that resulted from Vedic thought.


Brahmanism is still represented to the present day by the Smārtas (adherents of the smti ). Characteristically, they are not a sect in an institutional or doctrinal sense but a loose category of (South Indian) brahmans who uphold nonsectarian orthodoxy. Their cultic practices are primarily private in character and reserve an important place for the Vedic ghya ritual. Smārtas will frequent particular temples, especially Śaiva ones, but they have no specific temples of their own. Worship takes place in the house, where a special room is kept for the pūjā. Smārta worship is especially concerned with the five gods Śiva, Viu, Durgā (consort of Śiva), Sūrya, and the elephant-headed Ganeśa, who are placed in the corners of a square with the preferred deity in the middle.

The Smārtas derive their tradition from Śānkara, the eighth-century founder of Advaita (monistic) Vedānta. Accordingly, they recognize the head of the monastic establishment (maha ) and center of the Śānkara tradition at Śngeri (in present-day Karnataka) as their spiritual leader. Another tradition connects the Smārtas with Kumārila, the eighth-century teacher of Mimāśa (the interpretation of the Vedic ritual rules and so of the dharma ). In this way the Smarta tradition claims to derive from both aspects of the śruti, the ritualistic and the Upaniadic (and thus the knowledge of karman and that of brahman, respectively), represented by the Vedanta tradition of Sankara and the Mimāśa tradition of ritualism.

The Brahmanic Smārta tradition lacks the colorful drama and institutions often and not without justification associated with Hinduism. It does not propound an enchanted world of magic and numinous power. Instead, it focuses on the central problem of karman and brahman already prefigured in later Vedism. It therefore holds on to the śruti as the ultimate truth and source of dharma. Tolerant of sectarian doctrines and practices, which it tends to harmonize, the Smarta tradition is not a sharply outlined orthodoxy. But it does represent the central concerns of Hinduism, past and present.

See Also

Agni; Ahisā; Bhagavadgītā; Bhakti; Brahman; Brāhmaas and rayakas; Dharma, article on Hindu Dharma; Domestic Observances, article on Hindu Practices; Goddess Worship, article on The Hindu Goddess; Hinduism; Indian Religions, article on Mythic Themes; Indra; Karman, article on Hindu and Jain Concepts; Ka; Mahābhārata; Maalas, article on Hindu Maalas; Mantra; Mimāśa; Moka; Prajāpati; Prāa; Priesthood, article on Hindu Priesthood; Pūjā, article on Hindu Pūjā; Purāas; Rama; Rāmāyaa; Rites of Passage, article on Hindu Rites; Rudra; Sanyāsa; Śānkara; Sarasvatī; Śastra Literature; Soma; Sūtra Literature; Temple, article on Hindu Temples; Tulsīdās; Upaniads; Vaiavism, article on Bhāgavatas; Vara and Jāti; Varua; Vedāgas; Vedānta; Vedas; Viu; Vtra; Yama; Zoroastrianism.



The classic work is still Hermann Oldenberg's Die Religion des Veda (1894; 2d ed., Stuttgart, 1917). Arthur Berriedale Keith's The Religion and Philosophy of the Veda and Upaishads, 2 vols. (1925; 2d ed., Westport, Conn., 1971), is a useful and detailed survey. Arthur Berriedale Keith and A. A. Macdonell's Vedic Index of Names and Subjects, 2 vols. (Varanasi, 1958), is outdated but still useful, especially for its text references. An up-to-date survey is provided in Jan Gonda's Die Religionen Indiens, vol. 1, Veda und alterer Hinduismus (1960; 2d rev. ed., Stuttgart, 1978). The nature, style, and composition of the text corpus are extensively dealt with in Jan Gonda's A History of Indian Literature, vol. 1, Vedic Literature (Wiesbaden, 1975).


A. A. Macdonell's Vedic Mythology (1897; reprint, New York, 1974) gives a comprehensive survey. Full-scale studies are Abel Henri Joseph Bergaigne's La Religion védique d'après les hymnes du Rig-veda, 4 vols. (18781897; reprint, Paris, 1963), known for its systematic cosmological approach, and Alfred Hillebrandt's Vedische Mythologie, 2 vols. (19271929; reprint, Hildesheim, 1965), which also brings in the ritual prose texts. Important specialized, although wide-ranging, studies are Heinrich Lüders's Varua, 2 vols., edited by Ludwig Alsdorf (Göttingen, 19511952), Hanns-Peter Schmidt's Bhaspati und Indra: Untersuchungen zur vedischen Mythologie und Kulturgeschichte (Wiesbaden, 1968), and F. B. J. Kuiper's Ancient Indian Cosmogony, essays selected and introduced by John Irwin (New Delhi, 1983). Georges Dumézil has argued his sociological and comparative Indo-Europeanist view in many publications; a useful analysis is given by C. Scott Littleton in The New Comparative Mythology: An Anthropological Assessment of the Theories of Georges Dumézil, 3d ed. (Berkeley, Calif., 1980). Leading scholars in the field are Louis Renou, some of whose significant contributions have been reprinted in L'Inde fondomentale, edited by Charles Malamoud (Paris, 1978), and Paul Thieme, whose work is among other things concerned with the dityas: see, for example, his Mitra and ryaman (New Haven, Conn., 1957) and Kleine Schriften, 2 vols. (1971). In his fine ethnomycological study, Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality (New York, 1968), R. Gordon Wasson has forcefully argued that the soma plant originally was fly agaric; his thesis is, however, not generally accepted.


Alfred Hillebrandt's Ritual-Litterature: Vedische Opfer und Zauber, "Grundriss der Indo-Arischen Philologie und Al-tertumskunde," no. 3.2 (Strassburg, 1897), still offers the best comprehensive survey. The foremost authority on Vedic ritual wasand still isWillem Caland, whose translations definitely clarified the intricacies of the Vedic system of ritual. Special mention should be made of his Das Śrautasūtra des pastamba, 3 vols. (Göttingen and Amsterdam, 19211928). For the role of the Śamaveda in the ritual, his translation of the Pañcavi śa Brāhmaa (Calcutta, 1931) should be consulted. Caland also initiated the study of the Jaiminīya School of the Śāmaveda: see his Das Jaminīya-Brāhmaa im Auswahl (Amsterdam, 1919). Julius Eggeling's five-volume translation of the Śatapatha Brāhmaa in "Sacred Books of the East," vols. 12, 26, 41, 43, and 44 (18821900; reprint, Delhi, 1963) still stands as a masterly achievement. The Veda of the Black Yajus School Entitled Taittirīya-Sanhitā, 2 vols., has been translated by Arthur Berriedale Keith (1914; reprint, Delhi, 1967); it should be checked with Caland's translation of the pastamba Śrautasūtra. Keith also translated the gveda Brāhmaas: The Aitareya and Kauitaki Brāhmaas (1920; reprint, Delhi, 1971). For the domestic ritual The Ghya-sūtras, translated by Hermann Oldenberg, "Sacred Books of the East," vols. 29 and 30 (18861892; reprint, Delhi, 1964), should be mentioned. For the "solemn" (śrauta ) ritual there is now the compendium of texts and English translation edited by C. G. Kashikar, Śrautakosa (Poona, 19581982).

The basic paradigms of the vegetal, the animal, and the soma sacrifices have been described in Alfred Hillebrandt's Das altindische Neu- und Vollmondsopfer in seiner einfachsten Form (Jena, 1879); Julius Schwab's Das altindische Thieropfer (Erlangen, 1886); and Willem Caland and Victor Henry's L'Agnitoma: Description complète de la forme normale du sacrifice de Soma dans le culte vedique, 2 vols. (Paris, 19061907). The sūtra s for the Agnihota have been translated by Paul-Émile Dumont as L'Agnihota (Baltimore, 1939) and the relevant Brāhmaa passages in H. W. Bodewitz's The Daily Evening and Morning Offering according to the Brāhmaas (Leiden, 1976). The Agnyādheya has been extensively studied by Herta Krick and Gerhard Oberhammer in Das Ritual der Feuergründung (Agnyādheya ) (Vienna, 1982), giving full translations of the Brāhmaa portions. While Krick's interpretation is oriented toward Indo-European comparison, Timothy Moody's treatment in "The Agnyādheya" (Ph.D diss., McMaster University, 1980) is more factual. The royal rituals of the horse sacrifice and the Rājasūya have been analyzed by Paul-Émile Dumont in L'Aśvamedha (Paris, 1927) and by me in The Ancient Indian Royal Consecration (The Hague, 1957). The Agnicayana has been described from the texts and from Frits Staal's 1975 observations of the ritual as executed by Nambudiri brahmans in Agni: The Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar, 2 vols., edited by Staal, with cassette recordings of chants and recitation (Berkeley, Calif., 1983).

The worldview of the Brāhmaas and especially their identification by modern scholars as the "prescientific" intellectual tool for ritual control of the universe have been dealt with by Sylvain Lévi in his La doctrine du sacrifice dans les Brāhmaas (1898), 2d ed., with a preface by Louis Renou (Paris, 1966), and by Hermann Oldenberg in Die Weltanschauung der Brāhmaa-Texte (Göttingen, 1919). Frits Staal has argued against the magico-cosmic meaning of ritual in general and, in particular, of Vedic ritual in "The Meaninglessness of Ritual," Numen 26 (June 1979): 223; Hans H. Penner's "Language, Ritual and Meaning," Numen 32 (July 1985): 116, emphasizes structure per se as against meaning. The continuity of the Vedic concept of sacrifice in Hinduism is the subject of Madeleine Biardeau and Charles Malamoud's Le sacrifice dans l'Inde ancienne (Paris, 1976). For the view of Vedic sacrificial ritual as originating in the conscious reform of a previous agonistic sacrifice, see my The Inner Conflict of Tradition: Essays in Indian Ritual, Kingship, and Society (Chicago, 1985). A detailed bibliography is provided by Louis Renou's Bibliographie védique (Paris, 1931). It has been continued by R. N. Dandekar's Vedic Bibliography, vol. 1 (Bombay, 1946) and vols. 24 (Poona, 19611985).


As a singular topic, Brahmanism has not been the subject of special monographs. Its definition fluctuates between a particular period of post-Vedic religious development (older Hinduism) and mainstream orthodoxy. Louis Renou and Jean Filliozat's L'Inde classique: Manuel des études indiennes, 2 vols. (Paris, 19471953), brings together the whole of the written records of Hinduism, including those in the regional languages, under the heading "Brahmanism" (vol. 1, chap. 6). Among older works may be mentioned Auguste Barth's The Religions of India, translated by J. Wood, 6th ed. (Delhi, 1969), chap. 2.

Central to Brahmanism is dharma. The best introduction is provided by Robert Lingat's The Classical Law of India, translated with additions by J. D. M. Derrett (Berkeley, Calif., 1973). P. V. Kane's History of Dharmaśāstra, 5 vols. in 7 (19301962; 2d ed., rev. & enl., Poona, 19681975) is an exhaustive survey of the topics that traditionally come under the heading of dharma. The institution of world renunciation has been analyzed from a sociological point of view by Louis Dumont in "World Renunciation in Indian Religions," Contributions to Indian Sociology 4 (April 1960): 5362. The same author has dealt with caste and vara in his influential Homo Hierarchicus: An Essay on the Caste System, rev. ed., translated by Mark Sainsbury (Chicago, 1980). He argues that Indian caste society (and even Indian civilization as a whole) is encompassed and held together by the religious principle of hierarchy. This view, however, is debatable because of the textual concept of vara, which refers not so much to hierarchic encompassment as to strict separation, while the religious institution of renunciation tends to break up society.

The vexing matter of ahisā is discussed in Ludwig Alsdorf's Beiträge zur Geschichte von Vegetarismus und Rinderverehrung in Indien (Wiesbaden, 1962) and in Hanns-Peter Schmidt's "The Origin of Ahisā," in Mélanges d'indianisme à la mémoire de Louis Renou, edited by Jacques Robert (Paris, 1968), pp. 625655. Like Schmidt, I argue for the ritualistic origin of ahisā in "Nonviolence and Sacrifice," in Indologica Taurinensia (forthcoming).

As regards mythology, E. Washburn Hopkins's Epic Mythology, "Grundriss der indo-arischen Philologie und Altertums-kunde," no. 3.1.13 (Strassburg, 1915), gives a useful survey. Classical Hindu Mythology: A Reader in the Sanskrit Purāas (Philadelphia, 1978), edited and translated by Cornelia Dimmitt and J. A. B. van Buitenen, offers an illustrative selection. Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty's discussions of Puranic mythology, such as The Origin of Evil in Hindu Mythology (Berkeley, Calif., 1978), are of considerable interest.

New Sources

Choudhary, B. K. From Kinship to Social Hierarchy: The Vedic Experience. Patna, 1999.

Elizarenkova, Tatyana J. Language and Style of the Vedic Rsis. Albany, 1995.

Facets of Vedic Studies. Edited by Bidyut Lata Ray. New Delhi, 2000.

Inside the Texts, Beyond the Texts: New Approaches to the Study of the Vedas: Proceedings of the International Vedic Workshop. Harvard University, June 1989. Harvard oriental series. Opera minora; v. 2. Cambridge, Mass., and Columbia, Mo., 1997.

Jamison, Stephanie W. The Ravenous Hyenas and the Wounded Sun: Myth and Ritual in Ancient India. (Myth and Poetics.) Ithaca, N.Y., 1991.

Jamison, Stephanie W. Sacrificed Wife/Sacrificer's Wife: Women, Ritual, and Hospitality in Ancient India. New York, 1996.

Mahony, William K. The Artful Universe: An Introduction to the Vedic Religious Imagination. Albany, 1998.

Malamoud, Charles. Cooking the World: Ritual and Thought in Ancient India. Translated from the French by David White. Delhi; New York, 1996.

Jan C. Heesterman (1987)

Revised Bibliography

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Vedism and Brahmanism." Encyclopedia of Religion. . 15 Aug. 2018 <>.

"Vedism and Brahmanism." Encyclopedia of Religion. . (August 15, 2018).

"Vedism and Brahmanism." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved August 15, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.