Category Archives: c. The Brahmanas

The Satapatha Brahmana

The Brahmanas are part of Hindu Vedic religion, which emerged after the Samhitas. Mainly, they describe details of Vedic ritual, including sacrificial rites (yajna), philosophical, and mythological background. More specifically, the Brahmanas dealt with proper performance of rituals, especially for the priestly class (Brahmins) (Rodrigues 59). It is insinuated that yajna was performed to give the gods their powers and to provide sustenance. One such Brahmana, The Satapatha Brahmana, has become famous in modern Vedic literature with the help of the translation by Julius Eggeling in the Sacred Books of the East (Vol. XII, XXVI, XLI, XLIII, XLIV. 1963).

The Satapatha Brahmana was composed around 300 BCE. It prescribes many rituals, as it is sometimes translated as The Brahamana of a Hundred Paths. In its fourteen kandas, the Satapatha Brahmana details many simple sacrificial rites but also goes into great detail of the most famous rituals in Hinduism; new and full-moon sacrifices, asvamedha (horse sacrifice) and rajasuya (consecration of a king), and agnicaya. Although the majority of the Satapatha Brahmana (SB) details Brahminic rituals, it also elaborates on ancient creation mythology such as the Flood of Manu.

Yajna are some of the most important rituals in the practice of Hinduism. As translated by J. Gonda (1) from the SB, “by reciting definite texts in a continuous, uninterrupted way one makes the days and nights of a year revolve in a continuous, uninterrupted way” (SB. 1, 3, 5, 16) “man, in being born, is born as a debt to death; in that he sacrifices he redeems himself from death” (SB. 3, 6, 2, 16).

There are many inclusions of fire sacrifices to the Hindu Fire God, Agni, in most of the kandas. This implies an importance placed on Agni in early Vedic religion to help maintain the order of the universe. Agnicayana or Building of the Sacred Fire Altar, is described in detail in the sixth, seventh and eighth kandas. Agnicayana is possibly one of the oldest surviving human rituals, as it is still performed today within Hinduism. This twelve-day ritual is premised upon attaining vitality, offspring or immortality. Before beginning the elaborate ritual, seventeen priests work for months to ensure the proper required preparations are completed (Rodrigues 64). Particular attention is paid to the detail of the layers of the bricks to construct the fire altar (vedi) (Eggeling vol. XLIII:1-147).  Historically, over the twelve days of ritual animal and soma sacrifices are made to the god Vayu (wind) and Agni (fire), purification rites for the patron are performed, construction of the fire altar, oblations of water and ghee, and many more animal and Soma sacrifices are made (Rodrigues 66) [see summary of agnicayana in greater detail in Rodrigues 64-67, or full translation in Eggeling, vol. XLI:143-419 and vol. XLIII:1-405].

Ancient social order of the Vedic peoples is studied in reference to the asvamedha and rajasuya. The asvamedha (horse sacrifice) [no longer performed because of its elaborate nature] was regarded as an important kingship ritual. A king, aspiring to achieve emperor status and attain offspring, would set free a stallion to wander about the land for one year accompanied by the king’s army. As the horse wandered upon another king’s land, the ruler would have to choose whether to relinquish his land or keep the horse and thus, initiate war. In this way, a king would acquire enough land to become an emperor. At the end of the one-year period of wandering, the horse [as a representative of the king] would be sacrificed. During the sacrificial rite, before the horse was killed, a ritual with the king’s chief queen would take place. The queen would simulate copulation with the horse under a large blanket as a representation of her relationship with the king. Rice would be cooked to represent the king’s virility, which later was to be consumed by the king’s wives. A dog was also sacrificed during this ritual to represent the killing of the king’s enemies. This ritual was very expensive and performed only by the wealthiest kings. Furthermore, the performance of one hundred asvamedhas in a single lifetime would grant the ruler the throne of Indra, ruler of the gods (Rodrigues 64) [see further summary in Rodrigues 62-64, full translation in Eggeling, vol. XLIV:274-440, and an example in the Ramayana epic].

Another form of societal ritual outlined in the Satapatha Brahmana is the rajusaya, or Inauguration of a King (Eggeling vol. XLI:42-129). A king who sought to become emperor would embark on a journey to conquer a kingdom, much like the horse representative of the king did in the asvamedha. Upon his return, the general would invite the conquered kings to join in a sacrificial ceremony. Since this was a riskier way to obtain a kingdom, it was more rare than the asvamedha [see further example explanation of the rajusaya ritual in the Mahabharata epic].

Included in parts of the agnicayana, asvamedha and rajusaya rituals, the sacred plant, Soma, also appears in numerous other rituals throughout the Satapatha Brahmana. Soma was first described in the RgVeda in little detail and further elaborated on in many other Vedic literatures, including the SB. Unfortunately, the Vedic peoples left little evidence of what soma actually was (Staal 747). Scholars regard Soma as a hallucinogenic, even though the true nature of the plant has not been verified (Rodrigues 67). Nevertheless, more than one hundred Vedic texts refer to the use of Soma (Rodrigues 67). Soma rituals prescribed throughout the SB, are mainly associated with fire sacrifices to the god Agni and Indra, who were believe to frequently drink the Soma extract (Rodrigues 67). A Soma feast is also described scrupulously in the third and fourth kandas (Eggeling vol. XXVI:226-3910)

Another important historic ritual, the new and full moon rituals, was performed twice a month, every month. The rituals were prescribed to retain the natural order of the universe. During the full moon (purnima), Hindus would observe a daylong fasting period while worshiping the god Visnu. During the new moon (amavasya) ritual, Hindus would again fast for a day in which they often worship ancestors. Clarified butter, fruit and animal sacrifices were made, as prescribed by the Satapatha Brahmana (Eggeling vol. XII:1-262, vol. XLIV:1-131). This was thought to be a central ritual, which preceded many other sacrificial rituals outlined in the Brahmanas (Eggeling vol. XLIV:1-131).

Along with rituals, the Satapatha Brahmana details creation myths, such as the Flood of Manu (Eggeling vol. XII:216-230). The Flood of Manu has recently been compared with the Noah’s Ark story in the Bible. While Manu was bathing, a fish asked to be moved into a bowl, as he was too small for the sea and the other fish would eat him. The fish promised to tell Manu how to save the world if he carried out the fish’s requests. The fish grew and grew, always requesting a bigger vessel. He quickly grew too big for any vessel and requested to be placed into the River Ganga. The fish then proceeded to instruct Manu to build a ship to hold animals when the great flood came. Manu did as he was told by the fish and saved the animals. The fish is thought to be a manifestation of Pajrapati [creator God] (Sehgal 401-402). In the interest of brevity, many points of the Flood of Manu have been excluded for this article (for short summary see Sehgal 401-402 and full translation Eggeling vol. XII:216-230).

Some rituals outlined in the Satapatha Brahmana are still maintained today, but many have been left in the past. Some rituals go into particular detail regarding animal sacrifice, which would only be prescribed for certain animals. Modern-day Hindus however, rarely use animal and blood sacrifices, instead using clarified butter, fruit and rice to feed the gods (Rodrigues 61). Modern interpretations have been made in regards to the Vedas in order to fit with current social norms.



References and Further Recommended Readings

Eggeling, Julius (trans.) (1963) Satapatha Brahmana: Sacred Books of the East, vols. XII, XXVI, XLI, XLIII, XLIV. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1882-1900.

Gonda, J. (1905) Mantra Interpretation in the Satapatha Brahmana. Leiden: Brill.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism: The eBook. Journal Buddhist Ethics Online Books,Ltd.

Seghal, Sumil (1999) Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Sarup & Sons.

Staal, Fritz (2001) “How a Psychoactive Substance Becomes a Ritual: The Case of Soma.” Social Research, Vol. 68 No. 3: 745-778

Stutley, Margaret (1969)The Aśvamedha or Indian Horse Sacrifice.” Folklore, Vol. 80 No. 4: 253-261



Related Topics for Further Investigation




Laws of Manu








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Article written by Alyssa Wadman (April 2013) who is solely responsible for the content.

The Brahmanas

The Brahmanas are a section in the Vedas and were said to be mostly written in 1400-1200 BC (Haug 47). The Brahamanas mostly consist of the proper way to conduct ritual practices of the priestly class. Hindus believe that if they practice these rituals it will grant them pride of acting rightly because performance of rituals was equal to acting rightly (Satheye 435). Each particular Veda has a Brahamana (Haug 6), but some of the teachings in each may be a little different, but still represent the same general idea. Each Brahmana was not just one part of itself, but each Brahmana was broken into more precise parts explaining different ideas and rituals.

The first Brahmana that will be looked at is Aitareya Brahmana, which is appended to the Rg Veda. At the time these hymns were written the caste system was not absolute and was subject to change because it was possible for the lower classes to become Brahmins (Satheye 436). At the time Hindus also relied on ritual practices in order to survive and they also had to be correctly done otherwise they were not legitimate (Satheye 440). The Aitareya Brahmana shows what Hindus are supposed to do through their life and the details associated with these rituals. For instance, Brahmin priests were evaluated on how correctly they would perform rituals (Satheye 435). They were made to believe that what they do in their life, good or bad, could affect their descendents, so behavior along with ritual practice was taken very seriously (Satheye 439). The Aitareya Brahmana also discusses the meaning of mantra and the application of mantra to the Hindus (Haug 3). Hindus believe that there are connections between the origins of their existence and the sacrificial rituals they perform and the Aitareya Brahmanas help explain the meaning of this (Haug 3). The many gods’ that they recognize now were not very consistent in the Aitareya Brahmana, which means there wasn’t much knowledge about these gods except for the ones that are known about now (Satheye 439). Finally, the Aitareya Brahmana is “inspired by ideals of safety, self-preservation, and rare preservation” (Satheye 440) and goes into detail of what this is all about.

The next Brahmanas are attached to the Vedic hymn collection called the Sama Veda, which also talks about the rules of certain rituals and practices. The one section of these Brahmanas that will be discussed is the Jaiminiya Brahmana. The second Brahmana of the Sama Veda is called the Chandogya Brahmana. One of the things explained is what type of person is allowed to participate in rituals and which people are not (Bodewitz 151). The sacred plant soma, which is a hallucinogenic used in some rituals, is also only to be consumed by certain individuals during rituals (Bodewitz 151). As mentioned in the Aitareya Brahmana, the Jaiminiya Brahmana also reinforces the fact that there is a certain way that rituals should be performed (Bodewitz 151). Lastly, the Jaiminiya Brahmana has very close similarities with that of another Brahmana called the Catayana Brahmana (Oertel 15). The reason that these two Brahmanas are similar is due to the stories that are told in them.

The second Brahmana which is part of the Sama Veda is one of the more popular. The Chandogya Brahmana is described as being quite long and a very important text (Lincoln 128). Where and when it was written are hard to tell, but scholars say it most likely comes from Northern India (Lincoln 128). The Chandogya Brahmana was a lot like other Vedic texts as it referred to other texts or most of it was made up of previous texts maybe just written in different context (Lincoln 128). One of the reasons that it was written was to explain the significance and the meaning of the four asramas (Olivelle 205). The four asramas refer to the four stages in a Hindu’s life: the student stage, the householder stage, the forest dweller stage and finally the renouncer stage. Although there is some speculation from certain scholars whether or not this is actually what the Chandogya Brahmana consists of; there is a lot of disagreement (Olivelle 206). Those that believe this is true have studied that the Hindus believe the first three stages only get you merit where as if you are able to get to the renouncer stage you will able to achieve immortality (Olivelle 205). Some of the other rituals and ideas mentioned are that of sacrificial practices and even about the “understanding of the cosmos, the self and nature of being” (Lincoln 128).

The Yajur Veda contains two Brahmanas, the Shatapatha Brahmana and Taittirya Brahmana. The Shatapatha Brahmana explains how the Vedic hymns are used in certain areas of Brahmanical rituals (Muir 31). The Shatapatha Brahmana is the only one that gives any detail on the ritual of human sacrifices (Dumont 177). The concept of certain gods or deities also comes up and how they came into being and certain myths believed about these divine beings. The god Visnu is mentioned in previous Vedic hymns, but in this particular Brahmana Visnu is perceived a little different and even portrayed in new legends that were not heard of before (Muir 32). Visnu is a also portrayed as a tortoise instead of Prajapati who was usually depicted as a tortoise in earlier mythology (Muir 40). There is also the myth of all the gods creating Prajapati (Muir 38), but then their sort of confusion with the creation of Agni (the fire god) by Prajapati (Muir 40). Another myth known in the Shataptha Brahmana is about the gods being able to achieve immortality (Muir 41), but even though they were all immortal there was still an inequality that developed among the gods (Muir 44).

The Taittiriya Brahamana is second Brahmana that is part of the Yajur Veda and has some contrasting rituals and explanations of these rituals. The Shatapatha Brahmana mentioned human sacrifices, but in the Taittiriya Brahmana these human sacrifices were symbolic and that were allowed to go as soon as the fire was about to consume them (Dumont 177). The interesting thing was that they even had a list of the names that were to be used in these human sacrifices (Dumont 178-182). Although both of these texts talk about human sacrifice as an important ritual there is no evidence of actual human sacrifice (Dumont 178). Another ritual discussed in the Taittiriya Brahmana is the full moon sacrifices (Dumont 585), which require following certain procedures in order for it to be done correctly. One of these procedures would be the “ritual cleaning, heating and brushing of sacrificial spoons” (Dumont 585).

The final Brahmana that will be explained is the Gopatha Brahmana, which belongs to fourth Veda; the Atharvaveda. This Brahmana itself is split into two separate parts: the Uttara-Brahmana and the Purva-Brahmana. The Uttara-Brahmana has about 123 different sections, but 79 of these sections take ideas from other texts or they are very closely linked (Bloomfield 4-5). The Purva-Brahmana is all about “mystics, theosophical treatment of the sutra and other forms of soma sacrifice” (Bloomfield 7). Three different soma sacrifices are discussed in the Brahmana (Bloomfield 11). Since the two parts discuss different topics, scholars suggest that the Gopatha Brahmana are written by two different people (Bloomfield 8). The Gopatha Brahmana is also said to not have much originality because it was written so late in history (Bloomfield 10).

In conclusion, the Brahmanas discussed are not necessarily the most popular, but scholars had done the most research on these Brahmanas and their relation to Hindu spiritual life. Even though some of the sources provided in these Brahmanas are taken from other texts they are still considered some of the most prestigious and respected texts not only by Hindus, but by scholars as well. Another misconception is that these would be the only Brahmanas surviving, but there are many more surviving that are appended to each Veda, but are not as well known. The Brahmanas are very complex so this research would only be the scratching of the surface of the Brahmanas, but gives the basic details of what they are all about.



References and Further Recommended Reading


Bloomfield, Maurice. (1898) “The Position of the Gopatha-Brahmana in Vedic Literature.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, 19, 1-11.

Bodewitz, H.W. (1977) “Notes on the Jaiminiya Brahmana.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 2, 150-157.

Dumont, Paul-Emile. (1959) “The Full-Moon and New-Moon Sacrifices in the Taittiriya-Brahmana (Second Part): The Third Prapathaka of the Third Kanta of the Taittiriya-Brahmana with Translation.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 103 (April), 584-608.

Dumont, Paul-Emile. (1963) “The Human Sacrifice in the Taittiriya-Brahmana: The Fourth Prapathaka of the Third Kanda of the Taittiriya-Brahmana with Translation.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 107 (April), 177-182.

Haug, Martin. (1863) The Aitareya Brahmanam of the Rigveda. Bombay: Government Central Control Book Depot.

Lincoln, Bruce. (2006) “How to Read a Religious Text: Reflections on Some Passages of the Chandogya Upanisad.” History of Religions, 46 (November), 127-139.

Muir, J. (1863) “Legends Chiefly from the Satapatha Brahmana.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 20, 31-48.

Oertel, Hanns. (1897) “Contributions from the Jaiminiya Brahmana to the History of the Brahmana Literature.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, 18, 15-48.

Olivelle, Patrick. (1996) “Dharmaskandhah and Brahmasamsthah: A Study of Chandogya Upanisad.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, 116 (April-June), 205-219.

Sathaye, S.G. (1969) “The Aitareya Brahmana and the Republic.” Philosophy of East and West, 19 (October), 435-441.


Related Topics for Further Identification

Shatapatha Brahmana

Gopatha Brahmana

Taittiriya Brahmana

Jaiminiya Brahmana

Chandogya Brahmana

Aitareya Brahmana





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Article written by Tyler Scholten (April 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.