Such is Banswada, a small town in Rajasthan. It was here that a whole recension of the Rig Veda has been discovered, thought to have been lost for centuries. Here, on the border of Gujarat, are two septuagenarians who are the last two living reciters of the Shaankhaayana Shakha of the Rg Veda…
The primary corpus of the Vedic trove are the 4 – Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharvan. Each of these Vedas has multiple recensions, called shaakhas. Patanjali in his Mahabhaashya mentions 1131 recensions in all – 21 Rig Veda Shaakha, 86 of the Krishna Yajurveda, 15 of the Shukla Yajur Veda, 9 of the Atharva Veda and 1000 of the Sama Veda.
Each shaakha, to be considered complete – is composed of 4 parts
- Samhita – the core collection of hymns
- Brahmana – An expansion of the hymns and some description of the rituals that these hymns are intended for
- Aranyaka – Philosophical excursions into the inner meaning of the mantra and associated ritual
- Upanishad – Pure philosophical discussions.
However, this is not a water-tight definition. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, for example, contains descriptions of certain rituals.
Different families are required to specialize in different shaakhas, so that the task of memorizing and preserving the text is shared among many people.
Now, to the subject of ritual. Ritual manuals have been composed for grihya and shrauta rites. Grihya rites are the household rituals, starting from the garbhaadhaana ritual before a child is conceived, to the seemantonnayana ritual for pregnant women, to the choula ceremony at the time of the first tonsure of a child, the upanayana or beginning of studies and so on.
More complex are the shrauta sutras – manuals composed for the performance of major rites. These rites mainly take the form of fire-sacrifices or homa/havanas. These rituals (or karma, literally meaning ‘something done’ or ‘activity’) are organized into
- Nitya karma – to be performed as a duty, with expectation of no reward
- Kaamya karma – performed with certain benefits in mind
Of the nitya karma performed in the shrauta fashion, they are further divided into 21 rites
- 7 paaka yajnas (literally cooked sacrifice) – simple rituals performed at home, such as the aupasana, vaishvadeva rituals
- 7 havir yajnas (literally burnt offering or oblation) – more complex rituals, which can be performed at home. These requires the tretagni – or 3 rituals fires permanently burning for the householder. The well-known agnihotra rite is the primary one, to be performed every day by the householder.
- 7 soma yajnas – the most complex rituals, which involve the offering of the famed soma juice. These are simply the most complex ritualistic behaviour ever recorded anywhere among human beings, such the intricately choreographed atiratram, which is a 12-day non-stop performed, continuing through the night (hence atiratram).
Ritual manuals are allocated to different shaakhas and regions. The Bodhayana and Apastamba Shrauta Sutras, for example, are designed for Krishna Yajur Veda and the Baashkala or Aashvalaayana Shakhas of the Rig Veda.
Sutras, by their very design, are concise and cryptic in their brevity. They were designed for easy memorization and transmission.
They are further elaborated upon by commentators, and the commentaries are called Bhashyas.
Of the extant shaakhas, the Aashvalaayana Shaakha of the Rig Veda is the best preserved and has most practitioners in the South of the Vindhya mountains.
In the North, the given book of Shrauta is the Kaatyayana Shrauta Sutra, whose related Yajur Veda rescenscion is the Vajaseyani Samhita of the Shukla Yajur Veda. The associated Sama Veda rescenscion is the Kauthuma Shaakha. The Kauthuma Shaakha, again, has 2 recitation styles, called paddhatis (literally ‘procedure’) – the Madra paddhati, and the Gurjara paddhati. The Madra paddhati (which originated in the Madra region, said to be the Ravi-Chenab doab in Pakistani Punjab), is well preserved among the Sama Veda reciters in the South. The Gurjara paddhati, however, has no more than 10 experts left, almost all of them resident in Kashi, prominent among them being Shri Sharat Joshi.
The Rig Veda shaakha associated with the Kaatyayana Shrauta Sutra is the Shaankhaayana. This was thought to have been lost, save for a rare text published several decades ago.
This brings us back to our tale… Read more at the link below.