Shrauta Sutras

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SHRAUTA SŪTRAS Around 700 to 300 b.c., many schools or branches (shākhā) transmitting oral traditions known as Vedas developed brief ritual manuals called Shrauta Sūtras. Of the Saṃhitās (anthologies) of the four Vedas, the Yajur Veda in its two main divisions, Krishṇa (Black) and Shukla (White), generated more than half of the extant Shrauta Sūtras. Such manuals were needed as concise guidelines for the four major priests, adhvaryu, hotā, udgātā, and brahman, each with three assistants, for increasingly elaborate and sophisticated sacrifices that had been detailed in the Saṃhitās and their respective Brāhmaṇa texts.

For example, the Taittirīya Saṃhitā of the Krishṇa Yajur Veda is matched by the Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa and the later Taittirīya Āraṇyaka and Taittirīya Upanishad. At least nine different Vedic schools preserved the enormous aggregate of Taittirīya texts as an oral tradition, recited by Vedic students who then taught the whole corpus to the next generation of sons and grandsons. For sacrifices known as shrauta (from shruti, "that which is heard," meaning the Veda) the bulky Saṃhitā and Brāhmaṇa texts were mined to create versatile ritual manuals. Each of the nine schools of the Taittirīya produced its own Shrauta Sūtra in order to systematize the ritual tradition according to its own lights. Therefore, when the Vedic student learns the Shrauta Sūtra of his shākhā (for example, the Āpastamba), he is memorizing material on rituals already covered, perhaps years before, in the Taittirīya Saṃhitā, Brāhmaṇa, and Āraṇyaka.

Similarly, various branches of the other Saṃhitās generated Shrauta Sūtras. The names of those extant, listed according to Saṃhitā, are:

Rig Veda: Āshvalāyana, Shāṅkhāyana

Krishna (Black) Yajur Veda: Baudhāyana, Vādhūla, Bhāradvāja, Āpastamba, Hiraṇyakeshin, Vaikhānasa, Kāṭhaka, Mānava, Vārāha

Shukla (White) Yajur Veda, also known as Vājasaneyi Saṃhitā: Kātyāyana

Sāma Veda: Lāṭyāyana, Drāhyāyaṇa, Jaiminīya

Atharva Veda: Vaitāna

Although arrangements of rules for shrauta sacrifices may vary, the contents of the Sūtras are similar from school to school. For a typical example, the Āshvalāyana Shrauta Sūtra, a guide for the hotā priest and his three assistants, all connected to the Rig Veda, begins with ishṭi (offerings) on new- and full-moon days and proceeds with the establishment of the fires, the twice-daily milk offering (agnihotra), offerings to ancestors, first-fruits offerings and other seasonal sacrifices, animal sacrifice, expiatory offerings, soma sacrifice (agnishṭoma), and a lengthy discussion of sacrifices cataloged according to the number of sutyā (soma-pressing days) contained in each. The Kātyāyana Shrauta Sūtra, on the other hand, begins with general remarks on shrauta rituals before it outlines almost the same list of routine sacrifices with variant order and emphasis, but attention to such sacrifices as pravargya (a special rite in a soma sacrifice, an offering of milk poured into boiling ghee) and purushamedha (human sacrifice).

The style of Sanskrit is the aphoristic sūtra (thread) genre, condensed and formulaic. Gradually, one or more commentaries (bhāshya) were attached during transmission of the Sūtras to explain their contents for changing circumstances. Also assembled were indispensable digests (paddhati, prayoga), often confined to a single type or example of a special ritual. The Vedic schools named here also produced Grihya Sūtras for domestic rituals, including the schedule of life-cycle rites known as saṃskāra and household offerings to deities, planets, and the deceased.

David M. Knipe

See alsoHinduism (Dharma) ; Soma ; Vedic Aryan India ; Yajña ; Yajur Veda


Gonda, Jan. The Ritual Sūtras. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1977. Situates the Sūtras in the full compass of Vedic texts.

Kane, P. V. History of Dharmaśāstra, vol. II, part II. Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1941. As with Gonda's book, Kane masterfully surveys the ritual Sūtra context.

Smith, Brian K. Reflections on Resemblance, Ritual, and Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Valuable discussion of links between Shrauta and domestic ritual systems.

Staal, Frits. Agni. The Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar. 2 vols. Berkeley, Calif.: Asian Humanities, 1983. Sūtras discussed in context of the Agnicayana.