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BRĀHMAṆAS Brāhmaṇa is derived from the Vedic Sanskrit word brahman (formulated speech, mantra) and signifies the genre of texts that deal with mantras, their use in solemn Vedic ritual, and, extensively, with the explanation of the secret meaning of the ritual itself as well as its component parts. The Brāhmaṇas are composed in stark, archaic prose and include the incidental discussion of a large variety of additional topics: etymology, customs, beliefs, proverbs, semihistorical legends, mythological tales, many asides, and much incidental speculation about the Vedic ritual. The oldest preserved Brāhmaṇa texts are part and parcel of the Yajur Veda Saṁhitā of the Black (Krishna) Yajur Veda. The Brāhmaṇas proper are linguistically younger, independent texts that are attached to the four Veda Saṁhitās. The Āraṇyakas and the older Upanishads also belong here, as they continue the discussion in the same style and language. The Āraṇ yakas are "wilderness (texts)," not "forest texts," which discuss, outside of the settlement, the secret and dangerous rituals; the older Upanishads contain the secret teaching, presented in dialogue fashion, on the nature of the soul and its ultimate identity with brahman, the force underlying the cosmos. They frequently continue to rely on Brahmanic ritual data and their discussion.

The Brāhmaṇa-style text constantly emphasizes correct knowledge of the hidden meanings of the ritual ("he who knows thus," ya evaṃ veda). The Vedic Brahmans strove to discover that meaning by correlations (homologies, or identifications). The underlying technique correlates certain items in the three spheres: microcosm (humans, society), mesocosm (yajna, i.e., ritual), and macrocosm (gods, universe). By performing certain actions in ritual, both the human and divine spheres can be affected, but only "if one knows thus." This correlation was possible as the ritual ground, its layout, its objects, and the very participants have corresponding counterparts in both the human and the divine or cosmic realm. Actions in ritual space therefore give the priests control over society and the cosmos outside it. Such ritual actions must be accompanied by ritual speech (mantras in verse and prose), used by the three major priests, and occasional silence, represented by the Brahman priest. Action, speech, and thought (shrāddhā, "trust [in the efficacy of ritual]") are integral parts of any ritual, which, by its correlations, works like sorcery and magic, as seen in the Atharva Veda and outside the Vedic sphere. The same system of correlations, allowing the control of macro- and microcosm, is also at work, with straightforward magic, in solemn Shrauta rituals.

This "ritual science" works with strictly logical applications of cause and effect, even where we would see covariation, that is, several "causes." We can also not accept the initial propositions (e.g., "fire is semen," "the sun is gold"). In order to establish such correlations, it is enough that two entities have just one thing in common, be it an attribute, phonetic similarity in designations and names, or even just a number. Preferably, multiple links are established. Use is made of facts drawn from everyday observations of nature and society ("cattle are thin in spring"; "nobility and Brahmins depend on the 'people' "), of mundane and sacred speech ("the gods love the recondite," and other proverbs), etymologies, details of ritual (a piece of gold = wealth, the sun), traditional legends (a certain king did not offer to Indra, disaster followed), myths (Indra opened the Vala cave, slew the dragon), and specially fabricated ritual myths that often restate older (Rig Vedic) ones (the gods feared the glowing Pravargya vessel and asked Prajāpati for help). Wherever possible, such data are correlated to establish multiple relationships that "explain" the ritual and empower the performers. A typical, involved argument, playing with etymologies, runs like this: "Prajāpati did not know to whom to give the offering fee (dakshinā). He put it in his right hand (dakshiṇa). He took it (pronouncing the mantra) For fitness (daksha) I take you, the offering fee (dakshiṇā). Therefore, he became fit (adakshata). The one knowing this who receives the offering fee (dakshiṇā) becomes fit (dakshate)."

The constant employment of such procedures in the Brāhmaṇa-style texts has created a complex, amorphous, still not completely described web of "hidden" interrelations, known only to the contemporary ritual specialists. Over time, many new sets of parallel and interlinking correlations were discovered, stated in sets of three or five, and increasingly brought to higher levels of abstraction, so that in the Upanishads, certain truths could be stated in abbreviated form, such as "tat tvam asi." Traditional esoteric Brāhmaṇa investigation thus resulted in Upanishadic speculation, a fact not always recognized, and it also is a predecessor of early Buddhist thought.

All of this is based on the important role of "classical" Vedic ritual, first seen in Brāhmaṇa-style texts, that is after the so-called Kuru reforms of Rig Vedic ritual. These transformations were due to a combination of political, social, and religious changes. The relationship between the development of Vedic ritual and changing social and political structures is a promising field for further inquiry. Ritual had been part of the Rig Vedic cycle of exchange of "food" (anna) between men and gods; after the Kuru reforms, in Brāhmaṇa-style texts, ritual became the center of religious life in the more elevated echelons of society. Its proper and increasingly complex performance allowed the nobility (and other wealthy persons) to be prosperous in this world: having many sons, cattle, long life, achieving dominance in clan and society, or reign over the tribe in case of chieftains, and to "reach heaven" after death. The priests performing the rituals strove after the same goals, and after expected, ritually correlated donations from their noble sponsors.

Always nervous about their purity, which cemented their (theoretical) highest position in society, an all-important point of discussion was how to avoid evil (agha, enas, pāpa) and pollution. This—and not the avoidance of violence as such, which has always remained involved in the classical ritual, until today—is one of the important aspects of the Kuru Shrauta reform. The myth of Indra cutting off the head of Dadhyanc is the "charter myth" of the main priests acting in classical ritual, the Adhvaryus, who want to avoid direct involvement in the evil and pollution, caused by killing, that is necessary in ritual. They fear pollution by pāpa, the "evil" of being stained with blood and being "touched" by death (working through meni, "revenge" that "sticks" to perpetrators) but cannot object to the killing and force that is necessary in many rituals. Rather, they delegate such actions to helpers, working outside the sacrificial ground, to avoid direct contact. Killing is not even referred to overtly: the animal is "pacified" (sham) and "agrees." This attitude has been copied by other religions, such as Buddhism and Jainism. The Dadhyanc tale thus is the main myth of justification of the priestly class. The Ashvin, doctors and latecomers to the ritual of the gods, become their Adhvaryu priests, after having gained the secret of the "(cut-off) head of the sacrifice." This they received from Dadhyanc, whose head they had replaced with a horse's head to save him from Indra's wrath. In ritual, likewise, the killing of sacrificial victims is done by helpers, outside the sacrificial ground. Because of its foundational character, the entire line of thought is in need of detailed treatment.

The Brāhmaṇa texts also offer considerable insight into the society and history of the period before 500 b.c. While the earlier texts, the Yajur Veda Saṃhitās, were confined to western North India (mainly eastern Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh), the Brāhmaṇas cover most of North India, from the eastern Punjab to the western border of Bengal, and from the Himalayas to the Vindhyas, and they even provide a few glimpses of areas beyond it. The cultural center, among the Kuru-Pancāla, began to shift eastward, to Kosala (Oudh) and North Bihar (Videha), with emerging kingdoms that claim Ikshvāku lineage (like the Buddha). The late Brāhmaṇa texts provide legends about links with Rig Vedic poets (Vishvāmitra, in Aitareya Brāhmaṇa) and Kurukshetra origins (Videgha, who founded Videha, in Shatapatha Brāhmaṇa). Some of the more complex royal rituals, necessary for social stratification and legitimization in these emerging large kingdoms, have been added to the core of the Aitareya Brāhmaṇa (1–5). While the earlier Yajur Veda texts overlap with the Painted Grey Ware archaeological culture (though the peripatetic pastoral Indo-Aryans cannot have been the actual bearers of this settled, agriculture-oriented culture), the later Brāhmaṇas overlap with the widespread Northern Black Polished Ware culture and the beginnings of the first Indian empire in Magadha.

The oldest Brāhmaoverlap with the widespread Northern Black Polishedas are contained in the Samhitās of the Black (Krishna) Yajur Veda (Maitrāyan.ī, Kaṭha, Kapishṭhala-Katha, Taittirīya S.), while the Brāhmaṇas proper include the following: the Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa is merely an addition to the Taittirīya Samhitā; a further, very interesting addition, with much cultural information and otherwise unknown myths, is the late Vādhūla Brāhmaṇa (or Vādhūla Anvākhyāna. There is no Maitrāyaṇī Brāhmaṇa, and only fragments of the original Kaṭha Shatādhyāya Brāhmaṇa, mostly referring to domestic rituals, have been preserved in Kashmiri Ṛcaka ritual handbooks. The extensive "Brāhmaṇa of the Hundred Paths" of the White (Shukla) Yajur Veda is available in two closely related versions, the Mādhyandina and Kāṇva Shatapatha Brāhmaṇa, with a complicated mutual relationship. The Shatapatha Brāhmaṇa is one of the Vedic texts first edited and translated; though it is a late Vedic text, which sums up much of the earlier discussions, it occupies a central position in Indian studies, in spite of the existence of similarly important texts such as the Jaiminīya and Vādhūla Brāhmaṇas. Most of these Brāhmaṇas belong to the schools of the Yajur Vedins and therefore explain the work of the Adhvaryu priests, the main priests acting in Vedic ritual, at great length, offering deep insights into the structure, sequence, and meaning of contemporary ritual actions.

The two Rig Vedic Brāhmaṇas, the Aitareya and the Kaushītaki (or Shānkhāyana) Brāhmaṇa, mostly deal with the recitation of Rig Vedic mantras by the Hotṛ priests, but the Aitareya Brāhmaṇa also contains important additions that offer a glimpse of the rituals and society of the emerging larger kingdoms of the Vedic East, in Kosala and Bihar.

The Sāma Veda Brāhmaṇas deal with the proper recitation of Sāman melodies but also offer a large amount of legends connected with the "authors" of such melodies. These are the Jaiminīya, Pancaviṃsha (or Tāṇḍya Mahābrāhmaṇa), and Shaḍviṃsha Brāhmaṇa. The Jaiminīya Brāhmaṇa is an extremely important text with many otherwise unknown myths, legends, and a wealth of cultural data. It has only partially been edited, translated, and studied. The Pancaviṃsha Brāhmaṇa is available only in uncritical editions. The Minor Sāma Veda Brāhmaṇas, often called the Sāma Veda Sūtras, have been edited by B. R. Sharma: Shaḍviṃsha Brāhmaṇa, Sāmavidhāna, Ārsheya, Devatādhāya, Upanishad Brāhmaṇa (or Mantra Brāhmaṇa), Saṃhitopanishad Brāhmaṇa, Vaṃsha Brāhmaṇa, Kshudra Sūtra, and Mashaka Kalpa Sūtra.

The Atharva Veda has a very late Brāhmaṇa, the Gopatha Brāhmaṇa, which is in fact an additional Brāhmaṇa (anubrāhmaṇa) of the Paippalāda school of the Atharva Veda. Fragments of lost Brāhmaṇas have been compiled by B. Ghosh.

Michael Witzel

See alsoHinduism (Dharma) ; Upanishadic Philosophy ; Vedic Aryan India


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